Organic Avenue, the tiny purveyor of high-end juices, fresh salads and specialty foods like cashew scallion cream cheese and Thai collard wraps, has hired a new chief executive with the goal of turning its new owner’s dreams of a national chain into reality.
Martin Bates, who turned around Pret a Manger’s faltering business in the U.S., will take charge of Organic Avenue in June. His task is to extend the appeal of its products beyond the trendy, celebrity-studded customer base it has built in New York City through a variety of national outlets, including online direct delivery services, exercise gyms and its own fleet of new stores.
“We need to mainstream the healthy, organic offering we’ve got,” Bates said. “I drink green juices and have done for the last year or so, but living the life of a vegan is not for me. I think there are lots of other people like me out there.”
Organic Avenue is famous for its juices and juice cleanses, as well as its orange and white bags that are often caught in paparazzi shots of rail-thin actresses in Manhattan’s stylish SoHo neighborhood.
Juice is fast becoming a big business, and everyone from Starbucks to restaurant impresario Danny Meyer is diving in.
The company also has a toehold in another fast-expanding market: ready-to-go vegan and vegetarian foods. “They’re capitalizing on two significant trends, pressed organic juices and vegan,” said Maxwell Goldberg, a former Wall Street banker who has turned himself into an overnight organic sensation with his blog about organics, livingmaxwell.com, and a new online directory of organic juice, pressedjuicedirectory.com. “There is nothing bigger in organics right now than pressed organic juice, period.”
The market for vegan and vegetarian food choices, too, is growing fast, driven by consumer concerns ranging from health and economics to the environment and animal welfare. More families are having “meatless Mondays,” and dining on tofurkey — a tofu-based turkey product; other fake meats are going mainstream as well, spawning a fast-growing crowd of consumers who identify themselves as “flexitarians.”
A survey in 2011 by Harris International for the Vegetarian Resource Group found that 5 percent of Americans never eat meat, while 33 percent said they were eating vegetarian or vegan meals more often.
It is that broader range of consumers Organic Avenue hopes to reach. Last week, the company introduced its first cooked vegan product, the Quinoa Bowl, a mix of red and white quinoa, a grain high in protein that is tossed with vegetables and spices. It comes in three varieties — Mexi-Fresh Veggies, Turmeric Tomato Cauliflower and Sweet Yam and Celery — and Jonathan Grayer, founder of Weld North, the investment firm that holds a controlling stake in the company, said sales have “been crazy” so far.
“We want to grow this business around helping people who want food that’s better for them,” Grayer said. “That doesn’t mean they have to be vegan. They certainly don’t have to favor raw. They don’t even have to be organic; they just have to want to be healthier.”
Bates arrived in the U.S. in 2008 at a time when Pret a Manger’s U.S. operations had fallen on hard times. The chain, based in Britain, had arrived with a bang and the backing of McDonald’s eight years earlier, rapidly opening 16 stores in New York. But its offerings of minimalist European-style wraps and baguettes failed to catch on.
The business was bought by a private equity firm, Bridgepoint Capital, and Martin, who was in charge of operations for all the Pret shops in Britain outside of London, was dispatched to New York to find a fix.
He quickly realized that what worked in London might not work here. The chain was proud of its espresso drinks and had installed expensive espresso machines in its New York stores — but Americans prefer drip coffee. It added poultry meats, tuna fish salad and cheese to its sandwiches in deference to American taste and offered bigger portions.
“We had tried to transplant London shops into New York, and that didn’t work,” Bates said. “We tweaked a few menu items and focused on maintaining high standards for good food and amazing service, the basic stuff, really, but we had to treat the business as American.” Pret a Manger now has more than 50 shops in New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and Grayer is hoping Bates will open a similar number of Organic Avenue stores over the next several years. Weld North also wants to sell its products in other outlets. “Martin was a master of doing that for Pret,” Grayer said.
Bates also will be charged with figuring out what mix of business will best propel Organic Avenue’s business. The company is best known for its juices and juice cleanse regimens, but it has a growing home delivery business.
“We are in the very late stages of forming partnerships with gyms and fitness clubs, which have a big interest in our products, but we’re also looking to put Organic Avenue into high-end retailers,” Grayer said, hinting that a high-end women’s clothing store might soon become another outlet.