Students heading back to class this month may find some yummy new branding in the cafeteria. Fruit-shake chain Jamba Juice is dramatically expanding its two-year-old JambaGo program in school lunchrooms, where 4-ounce smoothies are offered to children enrolled in the federally funded National School Lunch Program as a more kid-friendly (if not necessarily nutritionally advantageous) substitute for regular fruit.
It's a big move for the Starbucks of smoothies, which has grown to more than 800 stores since it launched in 1990. Now Jamba wants to win over the Salisbury-steak crowd while also boosting NSLP enrollment.
Introduced in early 2011, JambaGo—a frozen-beverage dispenser that's also popping up in colleges and airports—is currently available in meals or a la carte in about 500 schools, and the company expects that number to increase by the end of the year. Getting there wasn't easy. Jamba had to overcome four challenges on its way to the plastic lunch tray.
Obstacle: Some of Jamba's smoothies aren't exactly health food.
Solution: Reformulate completely.
At stores, a 16-ounce Strawberries Wild has 270 calories and 56 grams of sugar and contains nonfat frozen yogurt. Under USDA guidelines, NSLP fruit substitutes must be 100% fruit juice, and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation requires 8-ounce drinks to be 120 calories or less. Jamba took four popular flavors and tweaked their formulas for school use, then rejiggered again to meet AHG's stricter guidelines. "It's gonna taste great and it's an easier way to get young people to try fruits and vegetables," says Jamba CEO James White.
Obstacle: Jamba's retail-store hardware is too big and slow for lunchrooms.
Solution: Redesign everything.
Milkshake-equipment manufacturer Taylor helped develop streamlined JambaGo machines, which take up just a few feet and churn out hundreds of smoothies per hour.
Obstacle: Some health-conscious parents have been skeptical.
Solution: Talk it over.
Administrators receive brochures and can field questions from concerned parents. "They are [eventually] good with it," says Jim Lewis, the child nutrition supervisor at Bear Valley School District in Big Bear, California, who shows parents that Jamba's sugar content is "not insanely high like soda's." Most students actually finish the juice. "You can give kids fruit, but there's no guarantee they are going to consume it. With Jamba, though, kids are screaming [for it]."
Obstacle: Jamba's retail outlets lacked a plan for catering to kid converts.
Solution: Reformulate again.
Last year, the company didn't even have an in-store kids' menu. But in January, Jamba debuted four healthier kids' drinks in retail outlets, and decor will soon get more kid-friendly. "If we can get that younger generation, they're customers for life," says CFO Karen Luey. JambaGo is just the appetizer.
[Photo by Kent Larsson; prop styling: Janine Iversen]
A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.