Desi Saran with Benna Trumper, manager of the New Brunswick store.

Playa Bowls moves off the beach

Playa Bowls, which morphed from Jersey Shore sidewalk stand to storefront last year, is making its first move inland with a new location in New Brunswick.

It’s the latest chapter in the story of a business with Rutgers Business School’s imprint on it. The trio of partners, Robert Giuliani, Abby Taylor and Desi Saran, an MBA alumnus, were first prize winners in the 2015 annual business plan competition after their first summer.

Then Playa Bowls was little more than a tiny sidewalk stand on Ocean Avenue, a short walk off Belmar Beach. The fruit bowls brimming with exotic acai berries were an instant hit, and in this bustling beach town, the long lines extending from the Playa Bowls stand became fixtures that summer.

So it wasn’t surprising to Belmar regulars when they returned last summer to find a colorful 1,200-square-foot storefront serving the refreshing bowls. The trio credited the prize money from the business plan competition for their ramp up.

Desi Saran and Robert Guiliani at 53 Mine Street in New Brunswick during the grand opening celebration of the newest Playa Bowls location.
Desi Saran and Robert Guiliani at 53 Mine Street in New Brunswick during the grand opening celebration of the newest Playa Bowls location.

Now, the owners are betting on the strong tie between the Rutgers community and Belmar as well as the year-round appeal of the acai. "They know the name,” Saran said of Rutgers students. "We think it’s going to be a home run.”

The new location at 53 Mine Street continues an ambitious expansion that began in the spring when Playa Bowls opened new storefronts in Bay Head and Pier Village, moved into a larger storefront in Manasquan and acquired a food truck.

Winning the Rutgers business plan competition wasn’t the only boost Playa Bowls received. Saran, who completed his MBA in 2014, enlisted the help of the  MBA Team Consulting Program last year.  “They helped us with a number of things we were struggling with internally,” Saran said.

The popular Playa Bowl.
The popular Playa Bowl.

Matthew Ambrusch, who was one of the MBA consultants, said rapid-fire growth is a big part of the Playa Bowls story.

So last winter, the trio behind Playa Bowls spent time with Ambrusch and his team to work through issues like staffing and cost analysis that they hadn’t had time to address. The MBA consultants suggested other changes, like having all employees wear Playa Bowls tee-shirts.

Playa Bowls implemented many of the MBA recommendations and it appears to have paid off. For 2016, the company employed nearly 200 people, including eight managers, and had sales of close to $3 million, according to Saran.

Ambrusch said working with Saran and his partners was the “best experience” of the MBA program. "It’s when you get to apply the concepts you’ve been learning about. The fact that they implemented our recommendations makes it even better,” he said.

New Brunswick will have a key role in the Playa Bowls growth strategy, according to Ambrusch. The neighborhood, which is heavily populated by Rutgers students, is a demographic that can help sustain the business when the beach locations slow down.

Nick Komandis, who is the co-founder of the popular Hansel and Griddle, joins the trio as a business partner in the new location. Like Giuliani, Komandis went to Rutgers University as an undergraduate. He also holds the lease to the Mine Street location – the site of the original Hansel and Griddle restaurant – and has become something of an adviser to the trio behind Playa Bowls.

"Nick is a lot of our inspiration," Saran said.

 There are more plans to add locations in Red Bank and Montclair. To finance an even bigger expansion – adding as many as 40 more locations over the next few years, Saran said Playa Bowls is planning to raise $5 million from investors and venture capitalists this fall.

“We’re all aligned about growing the business in this way,” Saran said. “We’re super excited.”

-Susan Todd

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