Evolution Fresh is now following me on Twitter. Who's that, you ask? Short answer: a new, or newly acquired and relaunched, juice-bar concept from Starbucks. Here's what the folks behind it say about themselves on their Twitter page: "We have the opportunity to change people's lives and to change trajectory of nutrition for the future generations."
Muddled grammar aside, that sounds awfully self-important. Wasn't it Schultz who in 1997 reminded us, in the title of his first book, about the virtues of humility, that you build a company "one cup at a time”? That book was a rewriting-of-history memoir, after Howard had returned, triumphant, from a brief exile and whipped Starbucks up from a local chain to a worldwide player. In it he describes an "epiphany" on his first trip to Milan and Torino, when he sees passionate Italians duck into tiny coffee bars for their morning thimbles of espresso; Gordon Bowker, who founded Starbucks with his two roommates, used to tell that very story ten years before Schultz joined the company.
Last year Schultz updated the story in another book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for its Life Without Losing Its Soul. In he cites some impressive statistics: 16,000 stores, $10 billion in revenues, 200,000 employees, and, most impressive of all, 60 million customer visits a month. By virtually every measure, the Starbucks mermaid is a huge success, the world's most frequented retailer. So why does she continue to behave like a petulant teenager, constantly trying on new outfits, desperate for approval, afraid she is unloved?
Down at the company's SoDo headquarters, the suits are never satisfied. It's their job to be hungry, to look for new opportunities, new markets. Most recently, Starbucks introduced a blonde roast, finally acknowledging that not everyone enjoys the strong, bitter flavor of its Full City Roast. It's finally opening shops in India. At its annual meeting four years ago, the emphasis was on healthier snacks in the stores, and on the acquisition of a premium coffee machine called the Clover. The company shut down for a full day to "retrain" team members in the finer points of coffee-making and customer service. It made a big deal in 2008 over a banana smoothie called the Vivanno, which few people remember today, and, more recently, over single-serve coffee machines made by Keurig.
With Starbucks' canned "refresher" drinks already making their way into grocery stores, the company was clearly aware of another new market, the "cold-crafted juice" category, worth some $3.5 billion and growing. Even a small piece of that was enough for a San Bernardino, Calif., company called Evolution Fresh, but Starbucks sniffed around the company and smelled a new conquest with much bigger possibilities. Last November it bought Evolution Fresh for $30 million. You get the feeling the Starbucks people were just waiting to pounce; they banged out their first Evolution Fresh store, complete with graphics, equipment, new products, and staff training, in under four months. (TV's Restaurant Impossible pretends to do this in three days; don't believe it.)
There are three main sections to the new 1,100-square-foot store in Bellevue. First is a bar that dispenses eight taps of juice: carrot. beet, pineapple, cucumber, blueberry, coconut with pineapple, and an herbal tea. The juices are cold-pressed under high presssure at the original Evolution Fresh plant in San Bernardino, California. "Juice partners" function as baristas blending drinks for customers — mixing, for example, greens, blueberries, beet, apple, and ginger to create a beverage called Garden Gathering. The juices run $7.99 for 16 ounces, $4.99 for 8 ounces. The juice partners will also blend 16-ounce smoothies (carrot, mango, etc.) for $6.99. There's no doubt that High Pressure Processing results in a better, fresher, healthier product. No need for added sugars, either. Customers can also specify their own add-ins, including a shot of "Wheatgrass+" for $1.95, the + being a touch of lemon juice.
The second section is a traditional grab-n-go: sandwiches on organic wheat bread ($7) and wraps in collard greens ($7.50), along with bottled juices ($3.95 to $5.95). The most perplexing part of the enterprise is the salad bar, which offers breakfast of oatmeal, yogurt, muesli, granola, and "hot scrambles" with wild rice or quinoa. There's no grill, so the egg dishes are made ahead, off-site somewhere, and reheated with a steam wand. The salad bar continues through lunch and dinner, with three signature bowls ($8.75) of healthy fare (lentils, wild rice and kale; quinoa, kale and squash; buckwheat noodles with spinach and roasted peppers). You can add chicken or beef for $2.50, and "extra sauce" for another $1.50. And if you're feeling chilly, they'll top off your bowl with a ladle of vegetarian vegetable stock ($1.75) which, of course, must be warmed with the steam wand.
Calories, fat grams, protein, fiber, and sodium content are given for every item on the menu, albeit in teensy type. There's an abundance of W symbols for items that contain no wheat, and of Vs for vegan servings.
Starbucks insists this isn't about pandering to a faddish crowd of self-diagnosed gluten-intolerant young moms. "It's a trend," Arthur Rudinstein told me. He's Starbucks' "president for global store development" who put this whole concept together in under four months. "Wheatgrass? I swear by it. All those anti-oxidants! It's alive with freshness! Let me get you a shot!" He returned with a plastic cup of green stuff. I gulped it down. The lemon cut the taste of lawn clippings; it was delicious.
"So how's the food?" Schultz asks me. "How's it taste?" And what can I say? That I have a cold, that everything tastes a little dull? No, the wheat grass shot impressed me. The beet juice, too. But the signature bowls, with their lentils, wild rice, quinoa, and buckwheat, don't send me into paroxyms of delight. Nor do the sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and pepitas. You can order extra sauce (garlic, tahini, harissa, and something called tamari five-spice), but I'd just as soon add a squirt or two of that organic sriracha on the tables. There's a snack-like bite called the Mel Bar, concocted by Melody Beal, one of the company's food developers. Almond butter, millet, nuts, seeds, cranberries topped with flakes of coconut. One bite reminds me that granola bars (to me, to me) all taste like dirt.
Cynicism aside, Starbucks has been a key element in a cultural shift in American cities. In the space of a generation, coffee shops have become what bars, taverns, diners, and private clubs were: third places between home and work, neutral territory where people can gather. Do the SoDo suits know something we don't? Is coffee itself no longer the catnip it once was? If Evolution Fresh provides an alternative to caffeine, then Starbucks will succeed with this transformative concept. If not, well, no harm done.
When Starbucks removed its name from its logo last year, it did so, Schultz said, so that future ventures wouldn't necessarily be tied to coffee. Ironically, Evolution Fresh carries no Starbucks branding or logos whatsoever. This may be playing it safe. If the concept tanks, it would be far easier to sell off or shut down without the Starbucks baggage. What's more significant is that the company is moving away from relying simply on coffee-based experiences (romantically ducking into an Italian caffè in Milan or Torino) and wading instead into that vast market the Italians call benessere: health and wellness. It's worth a cool $50 billion a year.
This is way more than spas and massages. At its worst, its nothing more than catering to the whims of distracted 30-somethings with eating disorders and food allergies. At its best, however, health-and-wellness is a defense against the stress of modern life. If Evolution Fresh can get us there, can “change the trajectory of nutrition,” then more power to the mermaid.
Evolution Fresh, 545A Bellevue Way (corner of NE 8th), between "The Lodge" and Crate & Barrel. 425-453-1285.