From tiny Shore stand, Playa Bowls has built food franchise around acai — with surf twist

In just five years, what began as a makeshift sidewalk acai bowl and smoothie stand became a multimillion-dollar franchisor employing thousands across more than 75 locations in 11 states and Puerto Rico. 

And it all started in Belmar. 

“By sharing our stories of traveling, surfing and finding acai, we played a huge role in introducing healthy super fruit bowls to the Jersey Shore,” Abby Taylor, 29, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Playa Bowls, said. 

Taylor said the idea came to her after graduating college with an art degree in graphic design. 

“I always have been really creative and able to excel in anything artistic,” she said. “I also had been surfing my whole life, and it played a huge part in everything I did.” 

Taylor said that, while bartending during the summers and globetrotting during the winters to chase waves was great, she felt lost when thinking about what it was she wanted to do with her life. 

“However, while traveling, I was eating these different variations of super fruit bowls and became obsessed,” she said. “When I came back, I even was making them for all my family and friends.”

Some of Playa Bowls’ acai offerings.

When she spoke with her friend Rob Giuliani about what she might like to do for a career, he reminded her that she loved to surf, she loved to be creative and she loved acai bowls. 

So did he — so, he joined her as co-founder and CEO of Playa Bowls. 

“As Monmouth and Ocean County natives, we figured there was a need at the Jersey Shore for something healthy, because we hated when we were at the beach and our options were really just pizza or chicken fingers,” Taylor said. “There absolutely was a gap in the marketplace.” 

The pair got permission from a local pizza place to set up a small stand in front of the establishment in 2014. 

“We scrounged up whatever money we had to buy ingredients and borrowed a patio table, a few blenders, a mini fridge and an umbrella,” Taylor said. “We threw on some music, made a little menu and we were set.” 

At first, Taylor said she needed to educate consumers on what acai was. 

“By spreading the word, handing out flyers and telling people to come to our stand and try what we had, eventually it caught on,” she said. 

One morning, Taylor said she noticed the line was down the block. 

“I said, oh, my God, what is happening?” 

After operating the stand for a summer, Taylor said she and Giuliani were approached about moving into and fixing up a flood-damaged location directly behind their stand. 

“We didn’t have that much money, but we got our family and friends together to invest and put together the money we had made during the summer,” she said. 

Taylor said she and Giuliani worked day and night for nearly three weeks to open up their first retail store and current headquarters in July 2015. 

Business boomed — and, after receiving more than 100 inquiries per week, Taylor said, the co-founders finally agreed to begin franchising Playa Bowls two and a half years ago. 

“We weren’t really thinking that way, but it just got to the point where we could expand so much faster if we had partners,” Taylor said. “If we wanted to grow quickly, we had to be the first to market in all these new places.” 

More offerings.

The company’s menu currently features acai berry-, pitaya-, coconut-, kale-, chia-, banana- and oatmeal-based bowls (average $10), as well as smoothies (average $8) and juices (average $6), at 15 corporate locations, eight joint ventures and 54 franchise locations, with each being unmistakably Playa Bowls. 

“The vibe at each of our stores is highly consistent, but also super cool and authentic, with Instagram-worthy walls that you just want to hang out within,” Taylor said. “Our competitors totally don’t have that.

“We also produce our own acai now instead of getting it from a third party.” 

Taylor said that, after linking up with a couple of Brazilian men in Elizabeth to create their own manufacturing plant, Playa Bowls is now able to choose everything that goes into its acai blend. 

“We have almost double the amount of pulp in our acai than other brands, which results in a healthier and stronger product,” she said. 

With nearly 50 locations in the state alone, Taylor said New Jersey is most aware of the brand’s unique strengths. 

“New Jersey knows who we are at this point, but I’d love to see that in other states soon, too,” she said. 

As Playa Bowls already has been expanding along the East Coast, Taylor said, it is now headed west. 

“Colorado would be ideal as we expand toward the West Coast and continue to get our name out there,” she said. 

It may seem too good to be true, but Taylor said the last couple of years actually have required more sacrifice and hard work than she anticipated when running a business. 

“There were definitely times in my life when I missed a lot with my family and friends, so much so that many even stopped asking me to do things, because they knew I’d always put the business first,” she said. “But it’s a lot different today.”  

Now that she isn’t behind a counter making bowls, Taylor said she spends her days hosting big-picture marketing meetings in her office, visiting various stores to maintain relationships, planning the brand’s social media presence and coming up with new and seasonal menu items, while Giuliani continues to set up stores, speak with franchisees and help with build outs. 

“With a strong team behind me, allowing us to expand quickly and take our business to the next level, it’s finally getting to a point where I can have more of my life back.”

Aiding the Amazon 

Playa Bowls, an eco-friendly brand committed to sustainability and healthy living, already does its part to help the environment by using plant-based plastic serving wares and offering metal straws. 

Then, the Amazon rainforest caught fire. 

“It is scary and very sad to see, but, instead of simply feeling helpless, we asked, ‘What can we do?’” Abby Taylor, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Playa Bowls, said. “So, we’ve been promoting on our website a way to donate to the Rainforest Alliance.” 

The Amazon also plays a huge part in Playa Bowls’ business, providing some of its key ingredients. 

“At this point, it hasn’t affected us yet, but I’m sure down the road it could,” Taylor said. “It’s definitely a concern.”

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