Business plan competition winners open first storefront as Playa Bowls flourishes at the Jersey Shore

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

In the dog days of summer, a tiny company selling fruit bowls and smoothies made with exotic acai berries was one of the hottest businesses in Belmar.

Playa Bowls opened last summer as a sidewalk stand built around a giant cooler on the cement. Still, it drew crowds – large ones. This year, fans of the acai berry bowls returned as if they had been waiting all winter for another taste of the fruity snacks. It wasn’t long before lines of customers started forming again, sometimes winding down Ocean Avenue toward Eighth.

But Rutgers Full-Time MBA alumnus Desi Saran and his partners Abby Taylor and Robert Giuliani, another Rutgers graduate, had already decided to up their game. After winning Rutgers Business School’s annual business plan competition in April, they invested in a storefront that would bring their customers into the shade.

Abby Taylor, Robert Giuliani and Desi Saran, the partners behind Playa Bowls.

They opened their first 1,200-square-foot shop inside the former Belmar Fitness during the bustling Fourth of July weekend. The shop’s grape purple awning, hand painted by Taylor, is visible from the beach. The interior is purple, too, with the work of local artists exhibited on the walls.

"Winning that $20,000 was huge in helping us to get the location here," Saran said.

The partners also added two new stands, one about 10 blocks away in Belmar and another in nearby Manasquan – and nearly tripled their employees to 14.

Playa Bowls illustrates just how the annual business plan competition helps to fuel entrepreneurism and support promising businesses created by Rutgers Business School students and alumni. Richard Romano, one of the judges, said of the three competition finalists, Playa Bowls had the "greatest short-term chance of doubling or tripling business.”  Prize money is provided by the Sales Executive Club of Northern New Jersey Foundation. 

Find out more about the 2015-2016 RBS Business Plan Competition

Acai (ah-sigh-ē) berries, one of the trendy superfoods, are certainly part of the reason for the company’s healthy sales. The bowls, acai blended with fruit and granola, coconut shavings, protein and peanut butter, appeal to beachgoers hungry for something more refreshing than a slice of pizza.

Social media has also helped to fuel the company’s growth, with customers happily promoting Playa Bowls with each visit.

The after-lunch crowd at Playa Bowls on a mid-summer's day.

Taylor, who also works as a bartender in Belmar, set off a blitz of free marketing last summer when she began posting pictures of the acai bowls on Instagram. Her friends came to try them. Her followers grew. More customers came. The word continued to spread.

Taylor said on a day Playa Bowls introduced some watermelon with mint juice, she photographed a tall pretty glass of it and posted the photo on Instagram. By late morning, there were 12 comments, including one person who vowed she was coming after work and another who declared: “I need some!”

"It’s funny," Taylor said, "but it’s definitely a huge part of the reason we’re growing.”

Sarah Dwyer and her friends Faith Watts and Molly Santi are a perfect examples of how social media brings customers to Playa Bowls.

On a steamy July afternoon, the three teen-agers were visiting the Belmar shop for the first time. It took them 30 minutes to drive to Belmar from Oceanport. They got lost trying to find it. They almost gave up and went home. And then, there they were, sitting at a picnic table, finishing up their first bowls.

Dwyer said they learned about Playa Bowls on Snap Chat, another popular social media platform. "It just looked really cool and it’s healthy too," she said. The girls searched online for the store address and then set out on their adventure.

Was it worth the trip? "Definitely," Santi said.

The line that seems nearly constant inside Playa Bowls is predominantly made up of young women. (Not surprisingly, Giuliani said females between that ages of 17 and 23 represent Playa Bowls’ core market.) But there are also parents with small children, mothers with teen-agers and young couples. Again and again, the customers said they like the acai bowls and smoothies because they "taste good," they’re "healthy,"  "refreshing," and "different.”

Playa Bowls isn’t just coasting on the popularity of acai berries though. The enterprising trio have partnered up with other small entrepreneurs with hot brands to bolster their selection of refreshing snacks. Chloe’s soft serve fruit and Asbury Park Roasters iced coffee could help them achieve their goal of tripling 2014 sales, which reached $100,000.

It’s a goal that requires intense effort on the part of Giuliani, Taylor and Saran. They’re involved in every aspect of the business. They drive supplies and deliveries to the company’s other locations. They manage, promote and on the busiest days, during the most hectic hours, they work alongside their teen-age employees cutting fruit, taking orders and working the cash register.

Abby Taylor, one of the partners behind the business, serves up a bowl.

"We’re here around the clock," Saran said. "This is our life right now."

"The hard part now is just doing everything the right way,” he added. "I know we’re going to be able to grow, but as we do that it gets harder and harder to get everything right."

They have bigger plans too. They want to create a brand synonymous with the Jersey Shore, and they’re interested in not only expanding, but building a franchise on the order of Jersey Mike’s or Muscle Maker Grill. "I just want to keep taking every opportunity that comes our way," Taylor said.

What happens when summer comes to an end? Playa Bowls will remain open, hoping that it will lure year-round Belmar area residents to the boardwalk with a selection of healthy soups. Giuliani also believes Playa Bowls has the potential to do catering in local schools and businesses when summer comes to an end.

"We’re going to be creative," he said.

-Susan Todd

TAGS: Business Plan Competition Entrepreneurship Full-Time MBA Richard Romano