Two years ago, Saturday Night Live aired a skit featuring Kenan Thompson and Beck Bennett stranded in the desert and dying of thirst. As Bennett gazes blearily into the distance, a wondrous vision appears. It’s a chipper young man wearing an apron and standing at a counter. He’s holding up an ice-cold yellow smoothie. “Bananamatazz with a zinc boost—for Mark!” he yells.
The vision? A mirage, of course. But the smoothie counter technically wasn’t. It’s Jamba Juice.
Quick-service restaurants have always furnished rich material for comedy, but in the case of Jamba—and these days, it’s just Jamba (see sidebar)—there’s serious business behind it. The brand that began as a 700-square-foot blender joint in California’s central coast region is today a multinational corporation with 800 stores. The multiconcept restaurant company Focus Brands, which operates Cinnabon and Seattle’s Best Coffee among other well-known names, plunked down $13 a share for Jamba last summer, taking the firm private to the tune of $200 million. Now, Jamba is in the middle of a revamp that will put more emphasis on entrees like steel-cut oatmeal and granola-based bowls.
Makeovers aside, though, Jamba will always be the concept that helped put smoothies on the map, and president Geoff Henry says that kind of recognition is indispensable. “We’re fortunate that Jamba has been a category leader,” he said. “We have an awareness that sets us apart from the competition.” The Jamba smoothie, he believes, is the best-tasting one on the market. After all, he said, “we’ve spent three decades perfecting it.”
Way back in distant 1990 (when MC Hammer was a big star and nobody had heard of the internet), a 27-year-old Safeway supermarket manager named Kirk Perron got the idea to open a juice shop—the sort of place that would sell a healthier alternative to convenience-mart slush drinks. After draining his savings and borrowing $30,000 from his mom, Perron opened a place called Juice Club. Following a slow build, business picked up, and Perron began expanding. With a bit of help from Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, Jamba landed a few VC partners, and by 1996, the company had a nice footprint (nearly 30 stores) and a new name: Jamba Juice (Jamba is Swahili for “to celebrate”).
It’s not like nobody had ever thought of mixing juices before, but Jamba’s formula of appetizing combos and alarmingly enthusiastic associates offering to “boost” your drinks was a perfect match for health-conscious Gen Xers. And today, three decades later, it’s still a good fit for millennials, too. But consumers have gradually awakened to the fact that juice drinks often contain a lot of sugar, which has in turn led Jamba to “grow up with its guests” by offering a diversified menu and quietly dropping juice from the name.
But the energy “boosts” remain, along with those jocund staffers—who were the target of that SNL spoof. Far from being offended, Henry was happy for the validation. “The brand has been part of the popular culture,” he said. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”