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Healing elixir or calorie bomb? The answer doesn’t seem to matter in the booming juice biz

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Juice is healthy for you but it’s loaded with sugar. It’s “natural” but it’s wasteful. It’s hip, except it’s square. Its ongoing identity crisis makes selling juice a tough startup business—especially at scale. It’s a market full of friction (just keeping the stuff cold is a major cost) and crowded with both established players and a seemingly endless stream of new entrants.

Even as sales (and the reputations) of mass-market juice products—orange juice in particular—continue to nosedive, startups continue to break in by selling mainly higher-end stuff; in particular, premium “cold-pressed” juice (which is one reason why mass-marketers are suffering). Industrywide sales figures for this highly fragmented market are hard to pin down. But for a rough idea, consider that sales of regular old orange juice have fallen by 13 percent since 2012, according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, the Organic Trade Association says organic juice is the fastest-growing category of organic foods, and sales of it grew by more than 33 percent in 2015 alone.

“This reminds me of the early days of the craft beer and craft coffee.”

“This reminds me of the early days of the craft beer and craft coffee,” says Mike Harden, a venture capitalist at Artis Ventures and a major backer of the Juicero. “Nobody’s been able to come in and own it,” he says, “because of issues of scale.”

Making and distributing juice is an expensive business, no matter the size of the producer. The large-scale, commercial juice makers are hurting because they’ve lost the “health halo” that makers of boutique and premium juices have been able (whether justly or not) to maintain. Meanwhile, some of the big, familiar companies that dominated the premium market before this latest wave are now either owned by huge conglomerates (Coke owns Odwalla, Pepsi owns Naked Juice) or, like juice-centric restaurateur Jamba Juice, have become behemoths themselves. In that way, Big Juice is still alive and well and living in the big cities.

Meanwhile, plenty of entrepreneurs are pushing the juice-as-health-elixir line. One of them is Doug Evans, whose Juicero machine got lots of attention, much of it in the form of scorn, when it was introduced last April. “The big thing I think is missing from this conversation is the fact that there’s a concerning produce gap in our country, and 100 percent juice can be part of the solution,” Evans says. “More than 90 percent of Americans fail to consume the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables–to the detriment of their overall health. Why? Because with our busy and hectic lives, it’s easier and more convenient to eat less nutritious or packaged food than it is to consume primarily fresh fruits and vegetables.”

We make getting your greens easy 🙃. 📷@elisabethmtorres #DrinkAmazingJuice #FreshCoast

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Evans sounds a bit hyperbolic in tone, but he’s not entirely wrong. And his argument does make a decent case for why some entrepreneurs are attracted to the juice business. “The reason I created Juicero was to make it exponentially easier and more convenient to consume more fruits and veggies, simple as that,” he says. Add the “artisanal” angle, sell juice as a unique experience, and you have all the makings of a food startup, circa 2016.

And the market will only grow, Harden (perhaps overconfidently) predicts. Near his San Francisco office, “there are five juice stores; this is Ground Zero for the juice war of 2016.” And now it’s ready to sweep across the country, he says. “What we’re doing in New York, L.A., Chicago, and San Francisco percolates into the rest of the country.”

“There’s a strong movement toward less sugar right now,” says Jeff Church, CEO of Suja, which makes a variety of organic, cold-pressed juices and smoothies. Coca-Cola took a 30 percent stake in the company last year, and Suja uses the beverage giant’s distribution network.

I’m not sure I would recommend the juice business to entrepreneurs at this stage of the category’s evolution.

The sugar content in many juices “is somewhat of a negative,” Church says, though he makes a distinction between the “naturally occurring” sugars in juice and the “added sugar” that beverages like soda and sports drinks contain, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup.

The importance of that distinction is a major point of debate between juice enthusiasts and detractors. But it’s one that could soon benefit juice makers: FDA recently ruled that added sugars must be broken out on food and beverage labels. That means juice makers get to put a big “0” on their labels, even when the products are loaded with “naturally occurring” sugars.

Merely playing up the health benefits of juice (while playing down the drawbacks) doesn’t do much to help a startup stand out in such a crowded field, where every company is doing precisely the same thing. For some companies, filling a niche might do the trick. The American Juice Company, a New York-based startup launched in 2013, is focused squarely on the market for mixers.

“Tell people what you stand for, not just what you make.”

“For us, it is about making it possible for bartenders in bars or at home to make the same quality cocktail that they would enjoy at some of the finest bars and restaurants in the world,” says Christopher Wirth, American Juice’s founder and CEO. Just as consumers seeking juice are increasingly looking for higher quality, “artisanal” products, so, too are consumers of alcohol. They want craft beers, bespoke vodkas, and wines with “interesting stories.” Not surprisingly, they want their mixers to be the same, Wirth says. “It’s clear to consumers when they are drinking something artificially flavored simply by the color vibrancy or taste. Most people in the juice business will share that their products are designed to make you feel healthier or give you missing nutrients, but we’re in it for taste.”

Another startup, the Miami-based Caribe, is focused on a different niche: young, Hispanic consumers living in the United States. The company’s juices are sourced directly from the Dominican Republic, using “exotic” fruits like guava and passion fruit. Most of that supply consists of surplus fruits that would likely have been discarded if Caribe didn’t snap them up.

Caribe is concentrated so far on markets in Florida and Washington, D.C. The target consumers are millennials of Hispanic origin: people with “disposable income” who are first- and second-generation Americans, proud of where they come from, and aren’t so interested in mass-market juices like Welch’s or Goya, says Cristian Robiou, a co-founder.

Robiou’s advice for entrepreneurs hoping to crack the juice market: “Invest in brand-building, as opposed to just products marketing.” Juice advertising doesn’t do much to distinguish any particular product, he says, since pretty much all of them are “cold pressed” and “natural.” “Tell your story,” Robiou says. “Tell people what you stand for, not just what you make.”

It could be that outfits like Suja made it to market just in time, and that anyone who wants to get into juice now will have to find some kind of niche or, some selling point other than “healthy, good-tasting, unique beverage.”

“I’m not sure I would recommend the juice business to entrepreneurs at this stage of the category’s evolution,” American Juice’s Wirth says, “simply because the amount of competition would make it extremely challenging to be profitable.”

Dan Mitchell

Dan Mitchell is our West Coast editor. A journalist based in Oakland, Calif., he has written for The New York Times, Fortune, Wired, Slate, the Chicago Tribune, Civil Eats, Modern Farmer, and many other publications. Follow him @thefoodeconomy