| 2015 Q1 | story by LIZ WESLANDER | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
Beverages are more than just thirst quenchers these days. For many, they are an avenue to better health and a go-to solution for snacks, meals and energy boosts throughout the day. With more and more people turning to juices, smoothies and unique tea blends on a daily basis, local businesses are getting creative about answering the demand.
According to Natural Food Merchandiser Magazine, bottled drinks are the second largest sales category after fruits and vegetables for natural product stores nationwide. Rita York-Hennecke, who is now General Manager at the Merc Co-op at 901 Iowa St., and who began working at The Merc in 2005 as the refrigerated grocery manager, said that she has seen the demand for healthy bottled drinks grow rapidly during her time at the natural foods grocery store.
“It started out with the Odwalla and Naked Juice smoothies and Perrier water, and has just blown up from there,” she said. “Now people are looking for things with chia seeds in it, cold-pressed juice, coconut water…drinks are something that people seem to want more and more of.”
The health beverage trend is not limited to bottled drinks. The Merc recently completed a renovation that included an expanded juice and coffee bar that offers freshly made organic juices and smoothies. The juice bar also serves a locally made kombucha, called KANbucha. Kombucha is a lightly sweetened effervescent fermented tea drink that has gained popularity in recent years.York-Hennecke said that The Merc has made a conscious effort to differentiate its juice bar by using only organic ingredients for the juices and smoothies, and by serving the local KANbucha in the novel on-tap format.
“We are all about healthy, local and organic, but people are not just looking for the nutrition,” she said. “They also want some excitement and sense of adventure with their beverages. The kombucha-on-tap is a fun thing to provide. It’s the closest thing we’re going to get to a beer tap here.”
Although kombucha, which originated in China, has been around for hundreds of years, it has only gained popularity in the U.S. during the last few decades. York-Hennecke said that she remembers having only one brand of kombucha on the shelves of The Merc in 2005. The co-op now sells five brands of bottled kombucha in a wide array of flavors that occupy more than half of the real estate in the drink cooler.
KANbucha owner Elliot Pees was inspired to try brewing kombucha in 2009 after trying a bottle that his sister brought for him from Austin, Texas. He started selling KANbucha on-tap from a kegerator at the Lawrence Farmers Market in 2010, and has since started selling bottled KANbucha at health food stores, coffee shops and gyms in both Lawrence and Kansas City. Business is going well enough that Pees recently partnered with Ben Farmer, owner of the local Alchemy Coffee House, to lease a 25,000 square foot production space at 111 Riverfront Dr. in North Lawrence.
“If you do your research, you’ll find that fermented foods have the potential to treat a number of chronic problems,” Pees said. “And kombucha is the rock star of fermented foods. It’s pourable, you can take it with you, and it has a broad flavor palate.”
Kombucha, like most fermented foods, can be an acquired taste for people whose palates are not accustomed to tangy or sour foods. KANbucha comes in six flavors with the most popular being Ginger Rose, which is a combination of kombucha, ginger, rosewater and some grape juice for color and sweetness. Jasmine Aid, which is made by adding jasmine tea and lemonade to the kombucha – is another popular flavor, Pees said.
“I see a lot of reactions to kombucha,” Pees said. “Some people taste it and love it right off the bat. I tell people that if you try it and don’t like it one day, come another day and try it again. If you don’t like it then, come another day and try it again. We have 6 different flavors, so it may be that they just haven’t found the right flavor.”
Lisa Green and Marybeth Mermis have also recently developed a business based on the popularity of healthy beverages. Green and her mother, Mermis, opened t.Loft at 4801 Bauer Farm Dr., late last summer. Everything on t.Loft’s menu, which includes fresh juices, smoothies and tea blends is gluten free. Green’s sister, Jill Minton, came up with the t.Loft concept after she, her daughter and her father were diagnosed in 2010 with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. Minton also operates two t.Loft cafes in Kansas City.
Green, who also has celiac disease, said that the family started drinking tea to help with their celiac disease, and that Minton, who Green describes as “dreamer” and “entrepreneur” came up with every recipe on t.Loft’s menu.
Green said that she has received a lot of positive feedback since t.Loft opened five months ago. Many of t.Loft’s customers are people with food allergies and autoimmune diseases, Green said, but a lot of the clientele are simply people who want to feel good and lead healthy lifestyles.
“People come in for a lot of reasons from a hangover to when they feel like they are getting sick,” Green said.
The most popular juice on the t.Loft menu is the “Alive and Alert,” a mix of kale, spinach, grapes, oranges, apples and ginger, Green said.
“Everybody just talks about how it makes them feel so good,” Green said. “I think people like it because you are drinking kale and spinach, but you can’t taste them.”