A group of high-school students lounge in plastic lawn chairs on the sidewalk outside a small San Clemente, California, shop called Blaz'n Blenders. They laugh, talk and gossip, while slurping the contents of large, white containers-real fruit smoothies. Inside the shop, three young employees, behind a seemingly sterile counter, fulfill orders by moving like a video on fast-forward. One of the speed-workers turns out to be the owner, Cari West.
"This is our rush hour," says the 25-year-old West. "The high school kids come here for lunch, and we have to put out 80 to 100 smoothies in about 20 minutes because they have to get back to class."
As a home economics major at California Polytechnic Institute, San Luis Obispo, West got her idea by frequenting similar stores. "I watched the bigger juice stores throughout college. I watched what they did and how they did it."
After college, West decided she wanted to be an entrepreneur rather than work for someone else. She then set serious sights on smoothie success. "I wanted to capture the feeling of my small home town, San Clemente, but operate a high-tech business." She then looked to her family for more ideas. "My family and I used to experiment with milkshakes every Sunday, so you could say this is in my blood."
West's family has made many contributions to her dream business. As the daughter of a CPA, West says she learned to be very organized and number savvy. Her sister, Lisa, wrote her graduate thesis on the particulars of opening a smoothie shop. "We got the numbers down and said, 'Let's go for it,'" says West.
Actually getting Blaz'n Blenders Inc. off the ground, West says, was exciting, but difficult. "The beginning was really tough for me, because I didn't know where to get milk and juices and other goods in bulk. I went to other juice bars and researched more."
Unlike many start-ups, financing was readily available for West. She incorporated her store to include her father and sister, investing money from them and from her own savings. West's first store cost about $47,000 to start.
"Equipment was approximately $15,000. That includes everything that is plugged into the wall, such as blenders and refrigerators," says West. Building the store from scratch cost West $30,000. That included interior decorating, plumbing, electrical work and construction. Signage and logos cost approximately $2,000.
One big help, West says, was a family friend who happened to be an architect. "He took me to the different restaurants which he had built. I looked at their equipment and designs. Then I went to tile stores and equipment stores, and designed Blaz'n Blenders from the inside out."
West opened the first Blaz'n Blenders in November 1993. Her immediate success inspired another store, which opened in July 1995 in nearby Dana Point.
"I've already paid back my sister, although she's still a full partner,' says West. "I solely run the business, do all the marketing, manage both stores and do payroll."
West's second store was more expensive because of demolition costs and its waterfront location in the Dana Point Harbor. West noted, however, that equipment cost less the second time around because she knew where to get better prices. "I was smarter the second time. I learned to go to auctions, buy used equipment or discounted new equipment with a barely noticeable dent. And I still got the warranty," West says.
West stresses that for her business, like many others, location is key. "The fact that we're in Southern California, where the temperature is mostly warm, makes my business profitable. My Dana Point store is a gold mine because of its location, but my first store is located in a small shopping center where the surrounding area is currently under development, so it's not as profitable."
West's San Clemente store pulled in $120,000 in gross figures in 1995, and she expects her second store to double that amount in the '95-'96 season, with a gross profit margin of 40-43 percent.
"I use the best ingredients, so my profit margin isn't as high as it could be; my food costs are 50 percent of all my expenses," confides West. Rent comprises approximately 10 percent of West's overhead, while labor adds up to 20 percent.
"It's a volume game," says West. To do well, she buys the best quality fruits, frozen yogurts and sherbets to maintain flavor and texture-and keep customers coming back. This also helps her advertising angle; her product's healthful ingredients attract health-conscious customers.
To further attract customers, West advertises in local magazines, newspapers and health clubs. "I distribute a lot of fliers and sponsor local sporting teams to advertise my business," she explains. "Community promotion is really important." And she's managed to capture the community spirit in her products as well, by naming some of her smoothies after local beach towns. Names like San Clemente Squeeze, Dana Point Date and Laguna Peach go over well with the tourists, as well as the locals.
West is happy with the path she has taken. "There is nothing I would do differently. There are always so many obstacles that come in your way. You can't let those obstacles affect you; overcome them. Everytime I came across an obstacle, I looked back and learned something."
Growing up with the business itch, West looked at the founder of Mrs. Field's Cookies, Debbi Fields, as her mentor. "She started out small, and look at her now," observes West. "I remember hearing that she said she baked cookies because she loved doing it. The best kind of job for you is something you'd do for free. I love working with people and food. I never get burned out or bored-crazy, sometimes, but not bored."
West says that, like her immediate family, she's always been business-oriented. "When I was younger, other kids got stuffed animals for Christmas. I was playing with a toy cash register and I ironed my money."
As her entrepreneurial venture blazes through its second year, West underscores her need to control all aspects of her business. "I need to learn more about bookkeeping. It's easy to put off because I have an accountant-my dad-who does all that, and I have so many other things to do. But I need to learn how to do it."
West adds that knowing how to do bookkeeping and understanding numbers is important, even if someone else is officially keeping track, because it allows her to see where her money comes from and where it goes.
West's latest venture is offering a business opportunity package. For a one-time $20,000 fee, West helps clients open their own smoothie bar. "I provide a consultation package, answer all their questions along the way and assist with the start up and operation procedures," she explains. The package includes employee training materials, purchasing contacts, proprietary smoothie recipies and the option to buy the rights to use the company name and logo.
While West deserves credit for her hard work, she says her product is the secret to her success. "I may use expensive ingredients, but my stores are in locations where I can afford it. My location and my product are the two most important parts of my business."
Haidee Jezek is a freelance writer in Calabassas, California.
For More Info...
Blaz'n Blenders Inc., 34531 Golden Lantern, Dana Point, CA 92629, (714) 452-1339.