By Stephen Ellison, Contributing Writer
At its outlets, Jamba Juice offers customers the option of adding a boost to their smoothies — a dose of energy, antioxidants, or protein powder.
But Jamba the company, headquartered near San Francisco, needs an innovation boost. It has either been barely profitable or lost money in each of the last half-dozen years.
So the pressure is on Jamba’s vice president of product innovation, Brian Lee, to help Jamba transform itself from smoothie purveyor to a more complete healthy food and drink destination.
In recent years, Lee has engineered a number of new product launches, expanding Jamba’s reach in beverages with fresh-squeezed juices and making a leap into the healthy food space with energy bowls (left). Those and a newly-devised strategy to adjust the menu throughout the year are intended to bring consumers into Jamba’s outlets more often.
“We’re approaching the seasons a little bit differently now than we used to,” Lee says, “with different products in the summer around fun and refreshment, and a little more functional focus in the winter.”
While the thrust of Lee’s job is to stay ahead of the marketplace, help the brand grow, and maintain Jamba’s standards for product quality and service, it’s not all on him. Accomplishing those objectives, he explains, is a team effort involving food scientists – Jamba has four on staff – and the marketing team. In addition, Jamba relies on its suppliers and distributors, as well as myriad food shows and conventions, to help track industry trends.
The company’s revenue in 2014 was $218 million, and Jamba has been in the midst of shifting more of its store ownership to franchisees. Nearly 90 percent of the company’s 807 locations are now franchised, rather than company-owned. Earlier in September, the company introduced a line of non-dairy smoothies made with almond milk.
Lee, who reports to Chief Marketing Officer Julie Washington, lays out the steps Jamba goes through in developing a new food or drink idea:
- Idea generation. First, Lee’s team gleans and filters all the data from the aforementioned sources – executives, analysts, food scientists, suppliers and shows – to come up with concrete concepts. It then selects the ones that make the most sense within Jamba’s model. “We look at the marketplace to see what ingredients and products are trending,” Lee says. “We shop our competition. We also look to our suppliers to help us understand product trends and appeal.”
- Concept testing. Next, the concepts are filtered again via consumer testing against several different parameters, a crucial one being TURF analysis. [TURF stands for Total Unduplicated Reach and Frequency, a way of exploring which mix of products will appeal to the widest range of consumers] “If you’re testing [natural fruit drinks], strawberry will rise to the surface almost every time,” Lee says, “and we can’t have 30 strawberry smoothies on the menu.” In the end, the TURF analysis helps his team understand how much incremental sales Jamba Juice will get from each new idea and determine a product’s broad consumer appeal.
- Taste test. Concepts that pass the consumer test then make it to Jamba’s test kitchen, where the company goes to work on making them delicious. “During the early stages, we have the innovation experts do most of the tasting,” Lee says. “Once we are happy with the product prototypes we recruit people from other departments to try the products and fill out a sensory ballot. Based on these tastings, we may make adjustments to improve the product.”
- Compatibility. Finally, a new product must be tested in stores to see if it’s operationally friendly. Jamba team members must be able to make it right every time and within the company’s standard for speed of service – 3 minutes per customer, Lee says.
Even with all the due diligence, some concepts still don’t pan out, Lee admits. When Jamba first started experimenting with food items, it ran into some hurdles in trying to bring them up to the company’s fresh and healthy standards, especially when it came to issues of distribution and waste.
“It’s difficult to have a fresh product delivered every day,” Lee explains. “If you don’t sell them all, then they must be discarded or donated. If you don’t order enough, you’ll run out and disappoint guests. Finding the perfect balance is difficult.”
The development team was forced to take a step back to see how they might approach the food space differently. “There’s some interesting technology out now where people are making things and Fed Ex-ing them directly overnight, so you have a little bit more shelf life when you take away some of the distribution costs,” Lee says.
When a new concept works, it can be an exhilarating experience for a product developer, Lee says. To him, Jamba’s expansion of its fresh juice line almost feels like cheating, as stores bring out fresh produce and squeeze it right in front of the customers (above). And Jamba was one of the first companies to ride the kale phenomenon, making the fresh, green leaves an integral part of its fruit and vegetable smoothie strategy. It has become more popular than most imagined, Lee says.
“I’m quite proud of our coconut water refreshers,” he says, referring to a line that debuted in 2011. “We go out to a lot of the food shows, and we just noticed a few years back that coconut water was really trending up. It’s got refreshing hydration elements, it’s lower in calories. So we built that into our summer refreshment platform. … We’ve even built on that more this year, seeing that everything coconut is trending now, including the meat and oils.”
From a service standpoint, Lee says his involvement is minimal, though he did play a role in launching the company’s MBA (Masters of Blending Arts) program, which teaches front-line team members about health, wellness and nutrition, so they can answer customers’ questions and deliver Jamba’s whole-foods message with authority.
Lee also spoke about the store queue, where Jamba constantly works on quick-service solutions. “On a hot summer day, we don’t want people walking up and seeing a line out the door and saying they’ll come back – and then not coming back,” he says. “So we try to look at technology to make that line go quicker. That could be pre-ordering on handheld devices, or we’ve played around with having an express line in places like train stations and airports, where people could just walk up and grab one of our best-sellers. We can have them in a specially-designed case that holds them at an optimum temperature…for up to an hour. That’s something that works well in those locations.”
He says that both pre-ordering (right) and express lines are areas of on-going testing.
In Jamba’s product development, technology plays a small but sometimes crucial part, and Lee says his networking at food shows and with the company’s supplier base keeps him on top of the latest innovations in food preparation and distribution. One in particular Jamba has taken advantage of recently is the high-pressure processing of juices, a cold pasteurization approach, instead of heat pasteurization. “We’ve launched a line of HPP bottled juices under the Jamba brand, and we’re selling them in our stores right now,” he says. “That is a technology I’ve been watching forever, and it’s just now becoming commercial. It definitely makes a superior product.”
As for the future of innovation at Jamba, Lee wants the company to maintain a leadership position in health and wellness and “clean” food. “And great taste,” he says, “is the one thing that will never change.”