We check out SoBol, Vitality Bowls, Freshii in FT Undercover

FT Undercover

Left to right, SoBol, Vitality Bowls and Freshii all aim to appeal to health-conscious consumers with their menus of acai bowls and salads.

When acai berries first burst onto the food trend scene a few years ago as the next "superfood"—a term that as a nutritional claim, by the way, doesn’t have clear scientific backing—it wouldn’t have surprised me if the tropical fruit faded as quickly as the cabbage soup diet in the ‘80s. Acai bowls, though, have emerged as a popular item in the healthy food category and become the basis around which several franchise concepts have been built. That’s the case at SoBol, where I had my first acai bowl after seeing the restaurant across the street from my hotel in Philadelphia. After ducking in just 20 minutes before it closed (that might explain the shop’s emptiness), an employee happily walked this novice through the many options and extras and only seemed slightly disappointed when I finally chose the classic acai bowl. SoBol’s version is blended acai, strawberry and banana, topped with granola, more strawberries and blueberries, plus coconut and honey for $9.34 after tax. The first bite resulted in a painful brain freeze, as I wasn’t expecting the blended fruit to be quite so frozen. A few minutes and lots of mixing later, however, and the bowl proved to be a flavorful and filling meal—albeit one better suited for breakfast instead of supper.

The upshot: SoBol’s classic acai bowl ensures the tropical fruit lives up to the hype, with its homemade granola an especially delicious highlight. — LM

Amid a row of high-end boutiques in the middle of a newly gentrified neighborhood in Denver, Vitality Bowls was right at home. Some mellow reggae played in an immaculately clean dining room. This visit was mid-conference, so among the massive menu I narrowed it down to either the Detox bowl or the Immunity bowl. With networking and a flight ahead of me, I opted to help my body stay healthy with some of that "functional food" that the trend spotters are buzzing about. I sat down, heard the blender fire up and moments later a simple steel bowl filled with really attractive fruit, granola and bee pollen emerged from the kitchen. Basically, it was a $14 bowl of ice-cold smoothie with all sorts of toppings. I admit a bit of sticker shock, but it did strike me as fresh, high-quality ingredients. And it tasted great. The blend of ingredients was a perfect balance of crunch from the not-too-sweet granola, creamy from the smoothie base and big bursts of flavor from the blueberries, honey and strawberries. It was a great way to cover up the flavor of kale and all the other healthy stuff that snuck into the smoothie.  

The upshot: Vitality Bowls might not be a daily breakfast routine at $14. But did I get a cold from the snot-bubble baby on my flight? Nope! —NU

"Let’s love kale," exhorts the paper bag that holds my healthy bowl from Freshii, among other peppy sayings like the snappy "let’s energize" and the somewhat awkward "let’s try unlikely combinations." Kale is the lone non-starter for me because it just tastes bad, but I’m down with "let’s embrace quinoa" and especially "let’s do whatever we love to do." For me that means choosing the Mediterranean bowl for $10.55 from a decent list of options, but then realizing when I got home I should have also ordered a sauce. (The bag said nothing about that; maybe the human at the counter could have helped.) A base of toothsome quinoa with a nutty flavor is topped with crisp red onions, chunks of tangy feta, plenty of chopped tomatoes and tasty almond slivers for a satisfying dish.

The upshot: A quibble with the mediocre black olives and lackluster lettuce leads me to suggest one more slogan for Freshii: "Let’s use only the best, fresh ingredients when our brand is all about the best, fresh food." —BE

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