MANCHESTER, NH – Smoothie Bus started as one bright blue smoothie-selling bus in 2018, but soon added a bricks-and-mortar shop in Manchester, then one in Concord, then another in Manchester, all by 2021.
Last year, owners Josh and Sonya Philbrick rolled another Smoothie Bus down to Tampa, Florida, where they now operate year-round.
But wait, there’s more.
The company has just opened Smoothie Bus Station, a community commercial kitchen with office and storage space, available for food entrepreneurs to rent.
That’s a lot of mileage in less than six years. The big first step was opening the Smoothie Bus Shoppe at 1000 Brady-Sullivan Plaza in 2019, Josh Philbrick said. With the bus only operating from April through October, having indoor space for year-round business was key.
Smoothie Bus, which sells more than 20 kinds of hot and cold smoothies, fruit bowls, juice and more, opened a second location, in Concord, in 2020. Then a third, and its second in Manchester, in 2021 on March Avenue, off South Willow Street.
The expansion meant the company needed more storage space, as well as somewhere to park its two Smoothie Buses.
When they found the right property, on Faltin Drive just off South Willow Street, it was 6,000 square feet, including office and warehouse units, and more space than they needed. The Smoothie Bus Station commissary kitchen food business incubator, wasn’t part of the plan, but it soon became an obvious solution.
Philbrick said that it made sense to offer up space for other companies to use when Smoothie Bus wasn’t.
“We started getting a lot of feedback,” he said. “People were inquiring about cooking equipment, a lot of people were asking about storage.”
Smoothie Bus doesn’t use a full commercial kitchen, but with 6,000 square feet of space, there was certainly room for one. And there was definitely a need in the community.
Philbrook has talked to a lot of food entrepreneurs over the past few years, or those who would like to be.
“A lot of people don’t know where to start,” he said. “People with existing businesses are looking for space to grow.” He said startups and food trucks not only need kitchens, but fledgling businesses also often need storage or office space.
To get from the idea to actually opening the city’s first public commercial kitchen, though, came with a big learning curve.
“It was an eye opener,” Philbrick said. “I never needed cooking equipment, a kitchen, gas, you name it.” Smoothies, after all, don’t need a lot of cooking and kitchen equipment.
Renovations came in at around $250,000 to $300,000, which the company managed thanks to the “goodwill” of local investors and banks, he said.
He also has worked closely with the health department throughout the process, and they were a big help, he said.
Aaron Krycki, environmental health supervisor at the Manchester Health Department said that the commissary kitchen “is a great idea and an opportunity for the Manchester community.”
Commercial food establishments that occasionally partner with other operators aren’t new in Manchester, but ones with a primary business model of exclusively offering commercial kitchen space to other businesses is, Krycki said.
Manchester is one of 15 municipalities in the state that has its own rules for “homesteading” food production. Any food service operation in the city that sells to the public must make the product in a permitted commercial kitchen.
Someone who’s doing this in their home kitchen “most likely does not meet the standards required to obtain a permit,” Krycki said. Added to that, as part of the overall approval process, a new business must get approval from the Planning and Community Development Department, fire department and city clerk’s office.
Krycki said that the health department licenses the shared kitchen, as well as each independent operator.
The commissary kitchen provides a place for entrepreneurs to “explore a potential new business idea based around their culinary or baking talents, without having to invest individually in a commercial kitchen just to see if their products have a broader market appeal,” Krycki said. “This type of establishment can be either a stepping stone or a springboard to a larger opportunity for many of these folks.”
The challenges for both the owner of the space and the users include ensuring that proper cleaning and sanitization takes place, surfaces are appropriately maintained, and a system is in place to monitor it.
Each operator, too, must date and segregate food items that are being stored.
“There is a necessary relationship between the incubator kitchen and its operators,” Krycki said. “While each operator is provided with safe, sanitary equipment and facilities for the production and distribution of food, they must still ensure that production occurs in a way that is not detrimental to the wellbeing of other operators, as well as the owner of the kitchen.”
The Bus Keeps Rolling
Philbrick said that he’s gotten a lot of interest, despite not launching a big marketing campaign, and is taking applications.
The storage – both cold and dry – and office space, a co-working area for food producers, is already up and running. Smokin’ Tin Roof sauces and Granite State Freeze Dried Candy are renters. The ideal number of businesses using the kitchen space is probably six to eight, he said, but he won’t know for sure until it all shakes out.
The logistics of sharing the space will be worked out using special software designed just for that purpose. The kitchen will be open 24/7, since many producers have day jobs and use the kitchen at odd hours. They can rent by the hour, week or month, with flexible terms, he said.
Meanwhile, Philbrick is also focusing on Tampa, where Smoothie Bus started operating last year. He spent 10 years in Gulf Coast city. “It has a fantastic vibe,” he said, as well as an established food truck culture and community. Smoothie Bus can roll year-round in Tampa, as well.
The company is building a private commissary for its own use that won’t have room for other users.
But the way Smoothie Bus has been rolling, that could evolve.
Philbrick said, “Depending on how [the Manchester] one goes, we may take the model to Florida and elsewhere, as well.”