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Smoothies: The new cold wars

Front line for smoothies is a stretch of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, where five vendors are vying to chill your palate.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

HIGHWOODS PRESERVE -- If brain freeze can be a delicious experience, I'm in smoothie heaven.

From mocha Frappuccinos to mango guava marvels, there is no shortage of opportunities to indulge your smoothie passions in New Tampa. No fewer than five businesses are blending the icy delights within a 2-mile radius along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Looking for lunch in a cup? An iced coffee pick-me-up? Every business has its edge -- the added zip of natural fruit juice, maybe protein supplements that help you make it through the long, hot work day.

It's a friendly competition, as I found out during this very subjective taste test.

But with three of the five stores serving the refreshing, slushy creations within a half-mile of each other, businesses are definitely looking for an icy edge.

Few can say who fired the first shot. But smoothie devotees date the origins of this cold war to late April, when Smoothie King opened at 17521 Preserve Walk Lane. Planet Smoothie had opened at 18035 Highwoods Preserve Parkway in December. Adding to the slush was Starbucks, a coffee Goliath that also serves coffee- and fruit juice-blended smoothies. Starbucks opened about the same time as Smoothie King, right next door.

Smoothie King franchisee Justin Clark says he did not know about Planet Smoothie's plans when he leased his property.

What's more, store manager Juan Rodriguez views Smoothie King as a player in the broader fast food market, competing against burger, chicken and taco places as much as smoothie establishments.

Business is better than expected, Rodriguez said, considering the store didn't have a grand opening. Customers tell him they prefer his frozen drinks to those at Planet Smoothie.

But that opinion isn't unanimous.

Almost every day, Carly Hufnagle walks from her job at Family Dentistry to Planet Smoothie to chill out with a Two Piece Bikini, a blend of strawberries or chocolate, bananas and fat burner blast supplement.

"I think this tastes better than Smoothie King and seems to be healthier," said Hufnagle, 27. "I see this as a meal replacement instead of going to lunch."

Planet Smoothie owner Diane Acosta wasn't fazed by Smoothie King's arrival. Her spin? Competition boosts business as Highwoods Preserve becomes a Smoothie Central.

It doesn't matter that customers are trying Smoothie King. "In the last two weeks I've seen that flow come right back," she said. "We're still building our clientele. But our volume has increased each month."

She's heard rumors -- "total fabrications," she calls them -- that Planet Smoothie is leaving. "New Tampa is growing so rapidly that just like there's room for Ruby Tuesday's and Bennigan's in the same parking lot, there's room for more than one smoothie establishment as well."

The old guard

Even before the latest wave, New Tampa residents were sipping smoothies at the Evos health food restaurant and the Joyful Reader & Holy Grounds, both a mile north on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Don't underestimate Joyful Reader, which doubles as a Christian bookstore and used to be owned by the Joyful Service Lutheran Church. It measures up to the big boys with 20 frozen drinks. Coffee bar sales are about a quarter of the store's business, said manager Liz Morley. Half those coffee bar sales are smoothies, including one called Sinfully Strawberry. Like other smoothie establishments, Joyful Reader can add protein supplements and create your favorite flavor upon request.

"We realize we can't be in competition with the smoothie places and Starbucks," Morley said. "There's a Starbucks on each end of us. (The super Target a mile north on Bruce B. Downs on County Line Road has its own Starbucks inside).

"Coffee sales drop off the hotter it gets. But that's when our smoothie sales pick up."

Evos is so health-conscious, the menus are printed with soy-based ink.

But along with the salads and veggie burgers, co-owner Alkis Crassas has seen smoothies rise in sales since opening in New Tampa 11 months ago. He and his two partners are so encouraged, they hope to expand the menu from three traditional berry-blended creations to 13, including cappuccino.

"Sixty-percent of our sales are combo meals. And 50 percent of the combos are going out in smoothies," Crassas said. "In addition to that, 10 percent of our overall sales are smoothies as a stand-alone item."

Frozen drinks are a recent staple at Starbucks, the Seattle chain that has been synonymous with coffee since 1971. It introduced iced Frappuccino in 1995, and for the past two years its stores have churned out citrus juice and iced tea mixtures with their own fan base.

Diane Hluboky, who likes neither coffee nor bananas, tried a Starbucks' Tazo ice-blended tea and has been back several times.

"I went to Planet Smoothie and didn't like all the healthy ingredients they added," said Hluboky, 48. "And the bananas make it too thick. This is different. It has green tea, orange juice, mango, lime. It's refreshing."

Fruit or fruit juice

What makes a good smoothie is subject to taste.

Who has been doing it the longest? Smoothie King, born 30 years ago in Louisiana.

But all blending gurus have their tricks of the trade. Fresh fruit, never canned in syrup, is where they all start. Planet Smoothie uses only fruit, no fruit juice. Smoothie King and Evos also use fruit juice.

Each place will add nutritional supplements, energy boosters and anti-stress powders if requested. Yogurt is frequently in the mix as a thickener. Some places use a dash of honey to taste.

"Our clientele is half and half; the health food clientele and people who want just a good tasting drink," said Phil Parker of Smoothie King.

"There are low fat fruit smoothies, the ones that taste good. Others are high protein based on the 40-30-30 method of diet (40 percent protein, 30 percent fat and 30 percent carbohydrates)."

Workout smoothies provide energy before or after the gym, and special smoothies replenish long-distance runners.

Smoothie King offers a meal replacement drink combining any two fruits with 42 grams of protein. Planet Smoothie weighs in with a Planet Living drink that packs 48 grams of protein and 4 grams of carbohydrates. This appeals to customers on the protein-heavy Atkins diet.

The taste test

First rule in taste tests: Don't compare iced coffee to fruit juice smoothies. That's apples and oranges.

Taking into account personal taste and the brain freeze factor, here is how the beverages stacked up:

The Snickers Bar smoothie with a shot of espresso from Joyful Reader edged a coffee Frappuccino from Starbucks. It combined unusual smoothie elements such as peanut butter, Hershey's syrup and caramel syrup. Along with the espresso the myriad flavors formed an eye-opening pick-me-up.

The Big Three in this frothy frozen mayhem -- Planet Smoothie, Smoothie King and Evos, all blend delightful fruit sensations. But the Caribbean Way at Smoothie King -- papaya with banana and strawberries -- got my nod. Expertly blended, the tastes brought an island party to the taste buds. It was like drinking sunshine.

I know, not everyone likes papaya. Different slurps for different folks.

Ron Allen drives from Tampa Palms to Evos several times a week for the food and the smoothies. Allen, 46, said Evos' smoothies taste more like fresh fruit than others he's sampled in New Tampa.

Oh, the solution to brain freeze? Press your thumb against your upper palate. Smoothie experts say it relieves the pressure.

Then you can finish your drink.

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