In its first foray outside the smoothies and juices that sparked its growth, Jamba Juice introduced Jambola breads last summer, earning the nutrition-minded chain the 1999 MenuMasters Award for Best Healthy Choice Menu Selection. "We've always positioned our smoothie as the meal, the center-of-the-plate item for us," recalls Joe Vergara, director of research and development for the San Francisco-based company. "But our customers were telling us they wanted something with a little chew factor, a little texture."
For Jamba Juice it was a hamburger-to-fries analogy. "We had our burger," he says, "But what would be our fries? That was the genesis of Jambolas."
Consumer behavior was another tip-off that it might be time for a chewy supplement. "Many customers would come in, order a smoothie, and while it was being made, they'd go next door to pick up a bagel," Vergara observes. "We wanted to address that need."
The hunt was on. Jamba Juice shared its product vision with Mattson & Co., an outside research and development firm, which then generated six to eight solid ideas.
The winning concept turned into Jambola, a 4-ounce, high-nutrient bread that is sold toasted and retails for $1.50. "We did a four-month test," Vergara notes. "We tweaked the concept a few times and also bundled it with a smoothie as a Power Meal. That was very successful."
Jamba Juice launched the product last August, anticipating selling 2 million individual Jambolas during the fiscal year. The product now is running 10 percent to 20 percent ahead of estimate.
The road to launch had some bumps. "Our expertise is in fruits and vegetables," Vergara says, "so this was stepping out of our comfort zone."
Problems developed because the bread initially was too dense, too fluffy, not quite thick enough, too flat a texture -- "that sort of thing," he adds. "We learned that it takes longer to commercialize a baked product than we realized."
Manufactured for Jamba Juice, Jambolas are delivered frozen to the stores and refreshed in conveyor toaster ovens. The chain wanted to deliver the taste and feel -- the hedontics -- of being fresh baked but didn't want to bring in fresh product every morning, rotate it and then have spoilage.
Jamba Juice also feared straying from its winning focus on healthful smoothies and nutritional juices, a possibility if baking equipment were added to the stores.
Healthful foods have played a major role in Vergara's life since he was 16. A native of Santa Barbara, Calif., he was raised on traditional meat-and-potatoes old country cooking. His first trip to a natural health-food store was a revelation. "I've gravitated to the health-food industry ever since." he says.
In the late 1980's, while Vergara was managing juice bars in San Luis Obispo, Calif., he would visit local grocery stores looking for deals on overripe bananas. Kirk Perron, who eventually would launch Jamba Juice in 1990, was working at Safeway during one of Vergara's shopping trips. "I brought 10 or 12 cases of bananas through the check-out line stacked perilously on my shopping cart," Vergara remembers. "We began talking."
"At the time, Kirk had a vision of opening a bigger and better juice bar and was looking for someone passionate about natural foods, health and nutrition," Vergara says. "It was a great chance meeting."
Jamba Juice didn't exactly burst onto the scene its first year. "It was tough going as we waited for customer validation," Vergara says. "We were making about $500 a day and wondering if we'd succeed."
They certainly did. With the acquisition of Zuka Juice in February, Jamba Juice, a 1998 Nation's Restaurant News Hot Concepts! winner, now has more than 220 locations. Systemwide sales are expected to reach $60 million by fiscal year-end in June.