Will free smoothies work at work? The startup Smoodi thinks so
On a recent Wednesday morning, Jeff Gahan was getting ready for the morning smoothie rush.
Gahan works not behind the counter at a smoothie bar, but for a Boston startup called Smoodi. The company is designing an automated smoothie-making station for offices, and for a recent eight-week stretch, it had a machine in place in a kitchen at Boston Consulting Group, to see how it would perform under real-world stresses.
Gahan’s job was to put small portions of frozen fruit into plastic cups. Employees were able to pick from one of three recipes. “Tropical is the most popular,” Gahan said as he dumped frozen fruit chunks into plastic cups.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that employees love free smoothies. (List price of a Tropical Bananza smoothie at one of the Mother Juice shops around Boston: $8.25.) One of the Boston Consulting Group employees who used the machine said she was sad to see the test end.
And in a low-unemployment era when Ping-Pong tables, espresso machines, and nap rooms are already part of the office culture that attracts and retains employees, employers are looking for new kinds of perks to offer.
“It’s unique,” says Karen Hood, the director of operations at BCG who invited Smoodi to set up at the company. “I don’t know of any other office offering fresh smoothies.” And BCG, she adds, is “very focused on wellness,” seeking to offer healthy eating choices rather than sweets and other nutritionally lacking foods.
If someone is going to create a machine that taps into that wellness trend and makes smoothies commonplace in the workplace, Smoodi wants to be it. As a role model, it has Keurig, which started out pitching single-serving coffee makers to offices in the Boston area in the late 1990s and now sells about $4 billion worth of brewers and coffee pods each year. Or Bevi, a Boston startup that makes a dispenser of flavored fizzy water for offices; it raised $35 million in venture capital this year.
But there’s also Juicero, a Silicon Valley startup that raised $120 million for a countertop machine that purported to “cold press” juice from packages. It went out of business in 2017, not long after a journalist pointed out that you could simply open a package and squeeze out the contents by hand, rendering the $400 machine pointless.
That’s why I went to the BCG office in person: to verify that Smoodi had built a machine that actually blends smoothies. (Also, I had skipped breakfast.)
I chose a plastic cup from a freezer with a glass door next to the Smoodi device. I added a spoonful of coconut flakes and oats from some jars that were sitting on the table. There was a digital display that wasn’t exactly delivering clear instructions about what to do, but thankfully, Smoodi founder Pascal Kriesche, a recent graduate of Harvard Business School, was standing beside me.
A plastic barrier, designed to block any smoothie spray, lifted. I placed the cup down in a circular spot, and was offered the choice of a thin, medium, or thick smoothie. I chose medium. The machine added water to the ingredients already in the cup, and a drop-down blender implement went to work.
After about a minute, the plastic barrier lifted again, and I picked up the cup. I don’t usually drink smoothies made with water — I tend to put some milk or yogurt in — so I missed that dairy component. But the taste was fruity, the oats and coconut added some nice texture, and the calorie count was right: 120 calories, compared with 310 for a similar serving size of my go-to smoothie at Jamba Juice.
Kriesche says he’s targeting the office market, rather than individual consumers, because the machine will be fairly expensive, at least initially, and businesses are less price-sensitive. (The plan is to charge a $500 monthly maintenance fee for use of the machine, plus about $3 per serving.) There’s also the need to do regular maintenance, he explains. (On my visit, he did some hand scrubbing of the insides of the machine with a small brush, to augment its automatic washing cycle.)
The current version of the machine doesn’t accept payments, but Smoodi is working on adding a payment system that would allow machines in offices or other locations — like a gym or a convenience store — to charge customers for each serving.
Other startups, like California-based Replenish, are building similar types of automated, self-cleaning smoothie machines.
Making these appliances, rather than a website or mobile app, is a challenging proposition, observes Sean Grundy, CEO of Bevi, the startup that makes the water dispenser for offices. “Our products are typically designed to function 24/7 and last for years,” he says, which means that it’s hard to make fixes and improvements once the machines are out in the world.
Grundy says he has met with Smoodi cofounders Kriesche and Morgan Abraham and thinks the concept is part of “a shift toward healthier, cleaner ingredients across all categories of food and beverages.”
Kriesche says the company’s near-term goal is to place 10 machines in different offices around Boston to “validate the office segment,” Kriesche says. Translation: Learn more about how deploying the machine in offices would work, while generating some early revenue from the monthly rental fee and per-cup charges.
Then there’s the task of building awareness and selling hundreds or thousands of the machines. Kriesche says the company is hoping to raise funding from investors this year to continue nudging the Smoodi machine toward the market.
If the company succeeds at all that, the morning smoothie could join the morning cuppa joe in office kitchens everywhere.