Bright orange carrots and yellow cubes of mango spun into liquid inside large plastic blenders one September afternoon at Blended Up, a new juice bar on Westchester and St. Lawrence Avenues in the Bronx. A steady stream of customers ordered smoothies named “big-fighter” or “detox power.” Many said they were grateful for a healthier option to the more established fast-food fare at the nearby Checkers, McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts, according to owner Maribel Vilas, 44, a native of Puerto Rico.
“There’s a misconception that black and brown people don’t want to eat healthy,” said Yasmin Tejeda, 28, drinking a mango smoothie on her lunch break from Primary Care Information Project where she is a clinical quality specialist. “But if it’s affordable and it’s available we want to eat it.”
Fresh juices are quickly becoming a staple in the local diet and economy. Vila’s business is the newest of four juice bars that have opened in the Soundview area of the Bronx within the last five years, three of them just within the last year.
The trend began in 2010 when Rapper David Styles—known by fans as Styles P—opened the popular Juices for Life on 1026 Castle Hill Ave. Its success inspired other Bronx entrepreneurs to follow suit. Three years later, Fresh Take, a juice shop on 2245 Westchester Ave., opened its doors and four months ago, GP Smoothies and Gift Shop opened on Castle Hill Avenue. Fresh Take owner Eric Glisson, 38, said the shop sells up to 400 juices a day, with many of the customers coming in after a work out at the Planet Fitness gym above the shop.
“People were so excited and very receptive, saying, ‘Thank God something healthy is coming to the neighborhood,’” Glisson said. GP Smoothies and Gift Shop owner Geoconda Pin said she distinguishes her business from others by including a deli and groceries. Juices, however, are still her most popular product. “People like the concept of green juices,” Pin said. “We use vegetables and natural fruits and that’s why they buy a lot.”
Affordability is key to business in Soundview. A small juice at Blended Up and Fresh Take sells for $3.50, compared to $5 at Juices for Life. Some customers compare the cost favorably to fries and a shake at McDonalds. “You can’t be a juice place coming in here selling a ten-dollar organic juice,” said Nancy Guevara, 28,a Bronx native who was visiting from Pennsylvania.
Prices don’t seem to be a factor for many customers, especially when their doctors recommend the products. Dr. Samuel Walters, an Internal Medicine specialist in Unionport, estimates 20 percent of his patients to be diabetic and 70 percent hypertensive. Juicing, the doctor said, is a good way to get fresh fruit. “I am a naturalist in the way I treat patients,” the Jamaica born doctor said. “Patients ask if I recommend juice and I do.”
But his recommendation comes with a caveat. Diabetes rates are high in Bronx neighborhoods. According to the New York City Community Health Survey of 2002 to 2004, the greater Pelham Bay area had a diabetes rate of 11 percent. In 2010, the Center for Disease Control reported that 8 percent of Americans have the disease. Restricting calories, Dr. Walters said, is the key to losing weight and keeping diabetes in check.
An improved diet and increased exercise also helps. Orlando Castro of Soundview dropped 50 pounds over the last year by making these lifestyle changes. The 31-year-old lives near Blended Up and comes for breakfast frequently throughout the week. “My father died of diabetes and my mother has diabetes,” Castro said, sipping on a strawberry and pineapple smoothie. “I’m not going out that way.” Some health experts, however, are concerned about the dangers of the high sugar content found in fruit juices. An 8-ounce serving of juice with sugary fruits such as apple, pineapple or grape can have up to 44 grams of sugar. “Juicing has become a big hit with my patients,” said Priya Massand, a health educator at Montefiore Medical Group on 2300 Westchester Ave. “In an area that is so laden with diabetes it’s almost a dangerous trend because it’s not being done in an educational way.”
Massand said she recommends that her patients drink juice that includes only one fruit, not several mixed together, and that they make sure no sweeteners are added. The educator keeps photocopies of the juice bars’ menus and points out which beverages are best—vegetable-based drinks—for her diabetic patients. “It can help but I think it requires so much attention to detail that is being missed that it’s not helping yet,” Massand said. “I’m concerned that it’s a trend and not a lasting change.”