The squat, locally produced bottle of swiss chard juice next to my computer every morning made me curious. The only other bottled drink I knew of originating in San Antonio was Big Red. The only way Big Red and Crave could be less alike would be if one of them was a solid.
Who were the brave souls behind these bold little juices claiming to balance my energy and cure what ails me?
The answer to that question was more interesting and complex than I had anticipated. It contains the seeds of hope for a healthier San Antonio, as well as the considerable hurdles for those who would see the last century of eating habits reversed.
“San Antonio has a sweet tooth … it’s been a challenge for them to try a green juice and love it. Especially without adding a bunch of sugar,” said Leslie Garcia, one of the founders of Crave.
It all started when she and Elizabeth Johnson realized that their problems could have common solution.
Garcia, who had an office at the Can Plant, wanted somewhere to buy quick, healthy essentials. If there’s a common complaint among the citizens of lower Broadway and north downtown it’s the distance they have to travel to find groceries.
“I hounded my neighbors moving into the Can Plant and asked them questions about what they wanted or needed at the Pearl,” said Garcia.
Johnson, formerly an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) San Antonio, wanted to see optimally healthy food delivered efficiently to people. The chef feels a personal calling to help people realize the life-giving power of food.
“I think food can heal us,” said Johnson.
They quickly recruited one of the Alamo Height’s Community Garden’s co-stewards, Karla Toye to join the team. Their idea was a market where people could access truly healthful foods, prepared and curated for their combined benefits.
In the beginning Omar Akhil was only consulting for the Crave Market team. However, proving the power of a good idea, he soon drank the Crave-Aid (if you will).
“His language started changing to ‘we,’” said Toye.
They pitched the idea to the Pearl, the natural location for the market. Pearl passed, and the Crave team regrouped. They added two new partners to beef up the business plan. Scott Samuels was another CIA chef out of Napa Valley with an eye for large scale operations. Once the model was up and running, Samuels intended to open a second location at his home in Marin County. The Bay Area is a hub for the kind of small market movement, and the team had already gone to San Francisco for research. Tina Kent’s long history with Cappy’s restaurant gave her a keen eye for how people relate to the food they purchase.
The market idea had to be put on hold, but the dream was still alive.
“Let’s at least roll out a product,” said Akhil.
That product became the ten vegetable-forward juices seen on the shelves of Rosella Coffee, Bird Bakery, and many other locally owned coffee shops and yoga studios.
In addition to vegetables, the bottles are packed with philosophy. First is the “Full Circle” approach to eating.
At the heart of this process is “Willie” an industrial juicer, and Teresa Clay-Sattiewhite who oversees the small juicing plant in north San Antonio. Visitors to the Crave facility won’t find pre-processed purees or concentrates. Instead they will find baskets of carrots, tomatillos and other fresh produce, waiting to be cut, squeezed, and pressed into juice by Clay-Sattiewhite and her team.
Each eight-ounce juice requires 2.5 ponds of produce and yields a lot of fibrous leftovers. The various remains are then turned into snacks, compost, and household cleaning products.
Then they had to solve the problem of distribution. In Texas, cold pressed juices must be distributed in the facility in which they are produced. Demand for the juices was already building, and Garcia needed a solution immediately. She found one in her own back yard.
High pressure pascalization (HPP) safely extends the shelf life of the juices without compromising their nutritional value. Because no heat is applied, the cell structures are not compromised, and the nutrients stay in tact. It just so happens that the only regional HPP facility is in San Antonio, just a short distance from the Crave processing plant. The Crave team then commissioned their own tests to confirm that HPP was as a good as it sounds. Sure enough, the cellular structures were in tact at the end of the process and the juices still tasted like themselves.
Currently, Crave is the only company in San Antonio with the technology to meet FDA requirements for distribution and produce enough volume to be profitable.
Another major tenant of the Crave philosophy is letting the vegetables do the talking. For Johnson this is essential to experiencing the anti-inflammatory benefits of ayurvedic food. When they got together to develop the flavors, they tinkered and mixed until they found ingredients that tasted good and worked well without the help of added sugar.
Ingredients that work well create what Akhil calls a “salubrious synergy” meaning that certain ingredients actually accentuate the health benefits of others.
“It’s like companion planting,” said Toye.
Crave does not use any additional sweetener, and deliberately shies away from the sugar-heavy tropical fruit bases of most juice. They really focus on vegetables, using the occasional apple and orange in quantities far more moderate than a classic Tropicana or Simply drink.
“We wanted them to be really, truly healthy for you,” said Garcia.
Johnson explains that to get the maximum benefit from fruit, we really do need the fiber as well.
“Eat your fruit, drink your vegetables,” said Johnson.
Crave doesn’t use just any vegetables either. They partner with local producers whenever possible, ensuring that each ingredient retains the nutrients that bond people to the land where they live.
The portion size was another deliberate move. I’ve heard people complain about the price of the little bottles, which at eight ounces constitute a proper serving of vegetables. The plain truth is that Americans eat too much and look for value in size instead of content. Crave juices stand opposed to that dangerous trend. They demonstrate a what serving looks like, and that not all servings are created equally.
The $3.50-5.00 price tag is based on the ingredients used to make the drinks. You have to squeeze a lot more swiss chard than orange to get eight ounces of juice. They could have added filler, but instead they just added more veggies.
So far most of the vendors willing to pay for Crave juices cater to a more urban or health-conscious clientele. The success of the juice has put the market idea on hold, as the team looks to launch web sales and home delivery.
That success, and the decision to focus primarily on the juices, did not fulfill the calling Johnson felt at the beginning of the Crave adventure, two years ago, or her evolving passion for Ayurveda. While the team envisioned the juices working well in many different diets, Johnson wanted a more complete nutritional resource, with a heavier emphasis on Ayurvedic personalization.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all nutrition. We’re different,” said Johnson.
The functional aspect of Crave juices were getting at this goal, but Johnson soon envisioned something more complete that could actually revolutionize a diet.
To that end, when she stepped back from operations at Crave, she launched PharmTable, a personalized menu based on a person’s unique needs. She has spent the last six months cooking for people, learning what people like to eat within the parameters of what they need to eat. With each menu Johnson relies on the accrued wisdom of Ayurveda, macrobiotics, plant diversity, and the Harvard School of Public Heath, and other holistic nutritional sources to unleash the healing power of food.
“I’m not letting my dream go,” said Johnson.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s partners at Crave chose to focus on getting their juice product into as many hands as possible, opening the door to total health for as wide of a population as possible, and improving the chances of realizing their ultimate goal of a Crave Market. Until then, they are pushing into online ordering for individual Crave-drinkers, as well as distribution in Austin.
Personally, I see a complimentary function for the two products. Crave juices are a gateway complete nutrition. They can open our minds to the tasty, functional, restorative power of food. Minds and bodies who experience the benefits will inevitably want more.
“We have to educate people. Or re-educate them,” said Johnson.
For that, they can look to PharmTable, where growth is on the horizon, and Elizabeth Johnson is on a mission to heal the world through food.
*Featured/top image: Ginger Crave Juice served at Rosella Coffee Company. Photo by Scott Ball.