Where to find camu camu fruit
Ingredients for bone broth, one of CoreLife Eatery’s most popular offerings.
If the average consumer was given the task of finding bee pollen, fresh acai berries or grass-fed beef bones it would be a little difficult. But getting enough of those unique ingredients to feed a few thousand hungry customers is exponentially more work.
There’s no doubt that many of the various health “trends” are no fads. Superfoods, gluten-free and nutrient-rich menus are getting a lot of traction. Just look at the growth of health concepts like Freshii, which opened its first 100 locations faster than Subway, or Starbucks.
The West Coast-based concept Vitality Bowls is racing as well, with 25 units and 54 more under development across the country. And emerging CoreLife Eatery opened its first location in January of 2015 under the direction of founder and former Panera executive John Caveny. It has five locations on the East Coast and another eight in development or planning stages.
But as the fads become lifestyles, getting the various ingredients health-conscious consumers want can be tricky. Just listening to Vitality Bowls co-founder and COO Tara Gilad list off the various superfoods she needs is dizzying.
“Brazil, that’s where we source our acai, our acerola and our graviola. We have been getting our pitaya from Nicaragua and we just started sourcing some even better pitaya from Vietnam. Our mangosteen we get from Southeast Asia,” said Gilad. “Right now we’re trying to get some real fruits like the camu camu fruit, but we can only get the powder. So we’re trying to source the actual fruit.”
The list is enough to horrify Spellcheck and confuse any but the most in-tune super-foodie. So when putting them on the menu, Gilad said it takes some strong relationships with distributors near and far. But mostly, it starts with the mighty Google.
“We’re always Googling and researching and talking to people in the health community,” said Gilad. “Something comes up and then we kind of chase it and see if we can do it.”
Vitality Bowls was inspired by and designed for Gilad’s daughter, who was born with severe allergies. It started as a place for her to be both safe and to get extremely nutritious meals made up of mostly superfoods like the popular acai berry, which is at the core of many of the brand’s menu items.
CoreLife uses a large distributor now, after working with local vendors, for consistency.
Craze up, quality down
Vitality Bowls is among the few restaurants that use the whole berry, but getting it wasn’t exactly easy. When the brand first launched, a different distributor performed well initially, but they couldn’t keep up with the hype of the berry.
“What happens is the first batchers are great. Then once more people start buying or the craze builds, the quality diminishes,” said Gilad. “That’s what we realized.
All the sudden the nutritional label changed and we said, ‘Forget it.’ They started filling it with all this other stuff and all the nutritional content went down.”
As the brand grew, so did the relationship with a new distributor, which she wanted to keep to herself. When they decide upon a new ingredient, they go to the distributor and see how it can help.
“It’s all about building relationships with solid distributors. We also make sure they are all organic, it’s got to be stamped by the USA, they have to have all their certifications all their paperwork—we have a paper trail for our ingredients, which is very important to us as well,” said Gilad.
For the various special ingredients she can’t get from her distributor like bee pollen, they develop the same relationships with smaller vendors. Finding the vendors takes a little legwork, but making it fit with the restaurant takes some operational insight and best guesses to keep the ingredient at the highest quality and maintain value for both the brand and customer.
“Over time, you figure it out, then you nail down that exact calculation for what to order, when to order and how much to order,” said Gilad.
Narrow but deep
Scott Davis, chief concept officer at CoreLife Eatery, also said those relationships were critical. But given the brand’s “narrow but deep” scope of ingredients, it was easy for the company to get to the volume it needed to get just about everything from what many growth brands might see as an unexpected source.
“I’ve found the local Sysco folks have been very responsive. They’ve gone out and found grass-fed steak from Australia, they’ve got a great program on antibiotic-free chicken,” said Davis. “And they’ve been doing a lot of the legwork on finding things like the naturally brewed soy sauce.”
Going to one of the largest distributors out there for such products just a few years ago might not have worked. But as more growth concepts push for specialty ingredients, many branches of the company have responded to the demand.
“They’re seeing more and more customers and concepts looking for these kinds of products,” said Davis, noting that there are benefits to working with a large operation. “Sysco, to me, from a food safety point of view and accessibility, they’re hard to beat.”
He said the brand started by working with local vendors, and they still source a few key produce items from smaller outfits. While they’ve grown with the brand, there are still issues in some regions.
“We generally work with local produce guys, they have infrastructure into all the local farms. So they’re really the best source. The tricky thing is you want stuff to show up the same way every day,” said Davis.
“When we first started, we were trying to buy a lot of local greens and local meats, the problem was one day it would be 12 heads of lettuce, the next day it’s loose leaves, and then your training doesn’t work. So you’ve got to have consistency of how it arrives to a location so your menus build the same way.”
The strangest thing he’s had to source makes up one of CoreLife’s central offerings, the bone broth used in a bowl and sold by the cup.
“It’s amazing first of all how good it tastes but how good it makes you feel. We actually sell—especially during the winter and spring—we’re selling upwards of 500 cups of bone broth a week in our first location,” said Davis. Again, he said Sysco was able to help.
“We’ve been bringing in antibiotic free chicken bones and grass fed beef bones, things that are a little off the mark for most chains, but they’ve helped us find them and make it work,” said Davis.
He said he still gets some confusion at the end of the line when he asks for unique ingredients, but given the strong demand, the Syscos and US Foods are adapting. “It’s a changing world and we’re happy to be part of that process, nudging the industry to a better place,” Davis said.