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June 27, 2006
As the daylight peaks and the summer heat intensifies around us, frozen beverages with a culinary flair afford the perfect way to not only refresh your spirit but to enrich your life, and no one can testify to that notion with greater enthusiasm than Ari Shapiro. After starting up the grassroots mountain bike clothing company Zoic in the hills of Northern California, Shapiro packed his bags and headed for the deserts of Arizona. The move was prompted by what Shapiro refers to as "looking to get more minimal" and while the subdued tempo of Tucson may provide less distraction than the "juxtaposition of culture, social progress & outdoor beauty" of San Francisco, the self-styled businessman wouldn't be sitting back as a spectator for long. Especially in that heat! What Shapiro and Tucson needed was a frozen beverage - one with a culinary flair.

Enter Xoom Juice, the smoothie bar that Shapiro started with a focus as much on what isn't in its drinks as what is. For comparison imagine the friendly and refreshing vibe of the neighborhood SnoCone stand all grown up with the sensibility of a real fruit diet and the civic astuteness of an American Apparel store. The company's motto is a rhetorical question - Why Mess With Mother Nature? - and it prefers to let the ingredients do the talking to back up their two-point strategy: It is really healthy. It tastes fabulous.

By all indications Shapiro's strategy is working, with three operations in Tucson and a satellite location in Boulder, Colorado. While a Starbucks-like expansion is unlikely to fit in with Xoom Juice's business model (the scene is as much about nutrients as it is iPods), the drink has been name checked as far a field as Outside, the nature sports bible. LAS staff writer Eric J Herboth thought the ground floor was as good a place as any to get in on the Xoom Juice buzz with an interview.

---

LAS: So, what exactly is a xoomer?

Ari Shapiro: A xoomer, by our definition, is an additional boost that you can put in a smoothie: protein, energy, antioxidant and cold fighter. They are herbal blends of ingredients like ginseng, echinacea, vitamins et cetera. We even have one for hangovers that really works.

Over the years though, xoomer has come to refer to anything from our drinks to our customers; it has become the "google" of "smoothie" here in Tucson.

How did you get started with Xoom Juice? Were you just an armchair smoothie enthusiast at home getting too many compliments, or did you see some sort of market that needed to be filled and went for it?

My start with Xoom goes back to my days racing mountain bikes in San Francisco. I was doing training rides 6 mornings per week after my cereal and bagel, and bonking pretty quickly. At Trader Joe's I saw all this great frozen fruit, fresh yogurt and quality juices. I started throwing it all together in a blender; it was delicious and made a huge impact on my riding performance. From then on I became a smoothie addict. In the seven years before Xoom the only days I missed my morning smoothie was when traveling. I know, a bit extreme, but all that fruit really changed my whole nutrition pattern for the better - I started craving whole, unprocessed foods. I avoided stuff in wrappers, which is a large part of the American diet. Since starting Xoom I am even more committed to a daily smoothie, and a low calorie, non-meat diet. I seem to get healthier with age and my doctor visits prove it!

Where do you get the fruit and coffees for your smoothies? Are you still shopping at the grocery store? Was the decision to go organic there from the start, or was it something you warmed up to?

The fruit we get comes from all over the world - our distributor in California has tremendous resources for getting the best, and its origin varies seasonally. For example, part of the year blueberries are tiny and purple, and come from Maine; other times from the northwest and a pale blue. Not all of our fruit is organic, as that would be too pricey. Already our food cost is quite high for what we sell at. Compare our smoothie's ingredients to a large frappucino, both at $3.95, and you get the idea. We do offer organic soymilk and coffee, which we get from a local roaster. One organic fruit we do use is from Brazil and called acai. It is amazing, and highly nutritious. You can learn a lot about it from sambazon.com. we are selling it a lot of it, and I eat it every day.

Have you found an alternative to the Styrofoam or plastic cup yet? That is one of the things that always bugs me most about places with food and drink to go; the throw-away packaging.

The styrofoam issue is tricky. First off, it quite simply is the best product for insulating the smoothie and keeping it fresh and cold over time. I have tried every other material, nothing is even close. Second, it is not always as bad as folks think. It is made from mostly recycled materials, doesn't kill trees or use the petroleum base that is in plastics. But the larger issue of disposable take-away products is challenging. We do sell reusable mugs for refills, and we do offer a refill discount, but a small percentage of people take advantage of it. Perhaps it's the hassle of always having the mug, perhaps the initial cost of $7. I do think that, overall, we need to move from a throwaway culture to a reusable one. Utensils are certainly an area to look at, and products like the Nalgene water bottle have made inroads. I am sure that as the products get better - and hipper - more headway will be made.

Rewind a bit, back to San Francisco, when you were doing Zoic, the clothing company. How did that all get started, and why did it end?

I started Zoic in San Francisco, during 1994, when I was obsessed with mountain biking and working as bike mechanic. The Bay area was very fertile ground for riding, and lays claim to many developments in the sport. While cycling the stunning trails of Marin in my tight lycra and neon jersey, I realized that I didn't feel quite right. On the road, that outfit is important for visibility and aerodynamics. But at slower speeds, immersed in nature, I felt a disconnect. It was overkill. I had always loved clothing that drew its style from function. I saw what other sports were doing - companies like Burton, the surf & skate industries, Patagonia - and realized that the new sport of mountain biking had no real defining look. I hooked up with my future partner, Scott Ward, and we developed a looser fitting cargo short that had a technical inner liner. It seemed to fit with the burgeoning riding scene, and caught on pretty quickly as an alternative to lycra or regular shorts. From there, we designed a whole line of apparel that fit with our philosophy of matching the clothing to the experience. But form always followed function. Thru the years we came up with some unique designs that are now staples of the industry, foremost of which is our Zoic stretch gusseted short. It was a fun time, and along with a few other key companies like Swobo, Chrome, and Nema we helped define the mountain bike look, which also found its way to the San Francisco messenger and commuter scene. I saw tons of Zoic stuff at the monthly Critical Mass rides.

The company is still run today by one the original employees, Eric Swenson. It has evolved, and retains the original vision. I left it after seven years for a change of lifestyle. As much as I loved the industry, and still do, the job itself became difficult: tons of traveling, production issues and so on. I felt I had done my part in starting it, and left it with Scott, who ran it for a few years before also moving on.

Do you consider the two, Zoic and Xoom, to overlap at all, in terms of target audience or cultural relevance?

I do think there is a Zoic/Xoom overlap. The companies grew out of a passion of mine, and focus on a specific niche; further, both are built on the foundations of authenticity, simplicity and utility. There is also a common thread of health and activity. Smoothies are well known in bike circles and many Xoom customers are cyclists, sometimes even wearing Zoic! I myself am still obsessed with two wheels and commute on my fixed gear to Xoom, also sometimes in Zoic

In terms of cultural relevance: both seemingly go against the grain of mainstream American mass culture. In a small way Zoic helped cycling gain traction as a viable transportation alternative. We had many stories of folks that said they never rode their bike to work because they didn't want to show up with their gear, revealing themselves in their tight lycra. Feeling confident in apparel that is street ready & stylish made a difference in their willingness to jump on the bike. Xoom is doing its part to give people a fresh and healthy alternative to the insanely crappy and ubiquitous fast food that people consume daily. We too hear many stories from customers who say we have helped them start along a better way of eating and living; they used to grab a doughnut for breakfast, now it's a protein smoothie followed by a workout - they quickly notice a difference in how they feel and how their day progresses.

If I were ever to start another business I would also want it to focus on something that can make a positive contribution to the well being of people and the world. Not sure exactly what it would be, maybe something related to my current passion of motorcycling. But I already have the name: ABC Enterprises.

SEE ALSO: www.xoomjuice.com

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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