Imagine a place where healthy food actually tastes good. Where chocolate shakes are as nutrient-packed as a shot of wheatgrass, and burgers are as guiltless as broiled chicken breast. In your dreams, right? Think again.
Downtown's newest eatery, Vitality Juice, Java and Smoothie Bar, is attempting to do both. Vitality is a Lousiana-based franchise that opened six weeks ago on Gold SW, just steps away from the Alvarado Train Station. The self-described "lifestyle store" and café seems tailor-made for hungry professionals, weary train commuters and college students who are short on time but fed up with greasy burger joints. Patrons order from a menu that includes healthy alternatives for breakfast and lunch: Everything from juicy buffalo burgers and "Peter Rabbit's" garden wrap to soft-serve, high-protein ice cream are all dairy-free, low-sugar and all-natural. There's also a grocery store area where customers can shop from a selection of natural foods and supplements. Franchise owner Kristie Romano talks with the Alibi about “functional” food, living the Vitality lifestyle and running a business with a new baby in tow.
How did the Vitality franchise begin?
Catherine Wilbert, a doctor of naturopathic medicine, created Vitality Juice, Java and Smoothie Bar and wanted to offer people great-tasting smoothies that are good for you. At the beginning, Vitality was just a health food store that started serving smoothies. The smoothies were such a big hit that they began serving food as well. Within the past two years, they retrofitted three stores to be a grocery store, smoothie bar and restaurant.
What sets Vitality apart from other juice bars?
Vitality is a lifestyle store. It’s not just a restaurant; it’s not just a smoothie shop; it’s not just a health food store; it’s not just a place to buy supplements. It’s a place where you can get everything you need to live a healthy lifestyle. It's also an entirely "green" store. Everything from the cups to the toilet paper is biodegradable. All our ingredients are 100 percent organic, with no added preservatives or chemicals.
We call our smoothies a “functional beverage.” We use organic ingredients and added supplements in some of the smoothies. Other smoothie bars add supplements as well, but the difference is that Vitality adds the full recommended amount of the supplements, so they’re actually effective.
Aside from smoothies, Vitality also serves food. The menu caters to all types of people, whether they’re diabetic, vegetarian, vegan or bariatric patients. No matter what diet you’re on and how strict it is, there’s something for you here.
How did you come to open Vitality in Albuquerque?
I grew up in the Albuquerque area. Originally I wanted to open a store in Florida [where I was living at the time], but came back to visit family. My parents and I visited Downtown and I saw all the revitalization taking place. I came across the space for rent and thought it was perfect. After that, everything just fell into place. I'm excited to be a pioneer for the revitalization of Downtown because there are no other stores like Vitality.
The definition of the word "vitality" is printed on a wall inside the store. How do you run your business based around that idea?
We want our employees to feel the same way we do: love it, breathe it, have passion about it. Vitality isn’t just selling great food, we're selling a lifestyle choice, so I want my employees to be educated on the matter. I am currently paying for several of my employees to take an online herbal education course so they can become certified herbal informationists.
Who's your target customer?
Ideally, I want to help people who are not environmentally conscious to become more aware. Vitality is a “gateway store” because health food stores can seem overwhelming to someone who has never been to one, but Vitality is much smaller so it isn’t as intimidating.
You have several types of smoothies on your menu: “Signature Smoothies,” “Fruit Blends," “Muscle Meals” and “Avalanches.”
The “Signature Smoothies” are functional beverages; they are there to serve a specific purpose. They add supplements for things like immunity, weight loss, brain function, etc. These smoothies only come in 24 ounces because of how much ingredient goes into them. The “Fruit Blends” are just that: blended fruit. There are no added supplements and they come in two different sizes: 12 and 24 ounces. The “Muscle Meals” are more for someone who is looking for lots of protein. They are post-workout smoothies. Each smoothie has 40 to 50 grams of protein in them. They also have other supplements in them for things like muscle recovery. The “Avalanche” is just a dessert shake. They're sugar-free, dairy-free and low-fat.
Since you're not using sugar or dairy, what alternative ingredients go into the food instead?
The ice cream used in the smoothies or shakes is soy-based. As for the sugar substitute, we use a product called Swerve. Swerve is artificial sugar made from the fermentation process of fruit and vegetable matter. It is safe for diabetics and doesn’t have the laxative side effect that many chemical sugar substitutes have. You can have your cake and eat it too because you get the flavor you’re craving without the negative side effects.
What are some of your favorite items on the menu?
“The Perfect Fast Food” smoothie has all the green food you need, as well as antioxidants and, surprisingly, it tastes amazing. I also like the “Rudy,” which is a blended coffee drink. It has 151 calories and 30 grams of protein. My favorite item on the lunch menu is the free-range buffalo burger, served "Cabo Style" (which means it's topped with pepperjack soy cheese, barbecue sauce, sprouts and chipotle slaw mix). On the breakfast menu, I like the cinnamon raisin bagel with a nut butter—almond or peanut. What’s also great about it is that all the nut butters are made in the store, so they’re fresh.
Do you plan on opening more locations around Albuquerque?
Eventually, we want to open another location, possibly in the Northeast Heights. Another store is essential because of how spread out Albuquerque is. However, we want to make sure the Gold location is solid before thinking of starting another store. If a business expands too fast, that’s when it fails.
You had a baby not that long ago. What is it like trying to start a business with an 18-month-old daughter?
My daughter, Angelina, is part of the reason why we started our own business. We want to be an active part of Angelina’s life, and this is the best way for us to do that. It was difficult to start the business at first, but I have a lot of family support which I am very thankful for. The business keeps my husband and me very busy, but we still find time to spend as a family.