Soul Smoothie & Bowls, a student-run smoothie and açaí bowl company, opened in the Seigle Cafe in the Ross School of Business last Tuesday.
The company was created last year by DJ Bailey, a 2019 graduate of the Business School, after he assessed the potential profitability and demand of the cafe using market research and surveys. Bailey said he got the idea when he and a group of Business School seniors found the market for smoothies and bowls in Ann Arbor lacked healthy options that offered fresh ingredients or convenient locations.
According to Business junior Sabeen Khan, Soul’s director of marketing, the process behind the opening on Tuesday was extensive. Once the menu was set, the team had to figure out their suppliers, packaging, design, go-to-market strategy and operation analytics, which included answering questions like how many employees they needed or how many smoothies they could sell in an hour, as well as the technological aspects of the app.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” Khan said. “But operational challenges are a part of growing as a team and a business.”
The current menu was created after months of testing. It includes popular menu items like the Soul Bowl, an acai based bowl topped with granola and various fruits, and the Hail Kale, a kale blend smoothie that’s a playful nod to Michigan school spirit. Khan said the team went around to various local towns over fall and spring break last year to look up menus and scout out people’s preferences.
“We went to someone’s apartment with a bunch of Nutribullets and a bunch of ingredients from Meijer to test out different variations and alternatives to some of the smoothies we liked back in our hometowns,” Khan said. “We pride ourselves on our fresh, local, organic ingredients so we had to make sure that we were being cost efficient but also getting that proper healthy ingredients that we wanted.”
Soul Smoothies & Bowls’ marketing strategy relies on various social media platforms and has captured the interest of students, including LSA freshman Maddy Wolkov.
“Considering I’m not even in Ross and I walked all the way here for it, I feel like it will be really popular and draw people in, especially after you work out or even if you’re just passing by,” Wolkov said.
Soul Smoothies & Bowls CEO Justin Schulman, a Business senior, explained the company is far more than just a smoothie stand that’s conveniently located — it is intertwined with the culture the Business School fosters.
“People believe that there is a culture that’s cultivated within Ross and that definitely exists in certain areas,” Schulman said. “We’re clearly catering towards a very specific audience. I don’t think there’ll be the same level of attention or popularity if it was in any other school. We know the certain demographic that studies in Ross, that is in Ross, that’s looking for this type of food: quick, healthy and aesthetically pleasing.”
As an organization, Soul Smoothie aims to parallel the values of positive business and action-based learning that Ross fosters in their academic environment, Khan said. By creating a business founded on good principles and an outlet for students to learn how to run a business, Soul Smoothies & Bowls has created a space for students to apply some of the skills they learned within their classrooms toward real-world business operations.
According to Khan, this was one of the reasons why the initial pitch to the Business School administration was so successful.
“(The Ross administration) was really receptive because it’s a good manifestation of the principles and ideas that they want their students to carry forward — it could really be something that students can run as well as a Michigan student start-up that can continue,” Khan said.
At the end of the day, however, Khan thinks it was also simply a good business model.
“For them, Ross and Seigle make money and they’re a business as well,” Khan said. “(Soul Smoothies & Bowls) was a good way for them to have the customer base that they’re targeting actually be the ones who’s doing the marketing and making the smoothies.”
As for their future plans, Khan said the team is prioritizing expanding the business outside of Seigle and diversifying the menu.
“Menu expansion for sure will happen,” Khan said. “We are constantly testing our current smoothies. We want to do seasonal offerings and want to expand that. Part of that comes with making sure that we have the ops down and being receptive to student feedback.”
Soul Smoothies & Bowls hopes to join the list of startups, such as the popular coffee chain Espresso Royale or the downtown bookstore Literati, that have left a permanent mark on Ann Arbor as well as the University campus.
“At the end of the day, our strength comes in our team as well as a general hustle that each one of us possesses,” Schulman said. “That team-oriented atmosphere has allowed us to form a lot of close relationships in the Ann Arbor area. And that hustle has been the driver that has allowed us to persevere in a lot of the similar areas that other small businesses might have faced.”