Denise Mari, who famously created New York City’s first vegan lifestyle and juice brand in 2006 and was shown the door not long after Weld North acquired the company, has teamed up with private equity firm Fisher Capital Investments to run Organic Avenue again, she shares exclusively with Well+Good.
“I never saw myself not doing Organic Avenue,” says Mari, when we meet her for lunch last week. “It’s why I’m here,” the 41-year-old says, looking preternaturally radiant, and none worse for wear, considering drama that must have unfolded over the past years. In fact, as her passionately written Organic Avenue lifestyle book hit shelves in the spring of 2014, she'd already exited the company, she notes with a kind of wistfulness.
A few summer’s back Organic Avenue was one to beat. They had 12 stores dotting the island of Manhattan, including an impressive loftspace HQ and vegan lifestyle incubator called the Space of LOVE (an acronym for Live Organic Vegan Experience) on the Lower East Side. It courted a growing community of health seekers, plus raw vegans and celebs. It was a also a time when Organic Avenue’s see-them-a-block-away orange bags dangled off the wrists of tens of thousands New Yorkers and tourists, who proudly grabbed them up as a token of the city’s green juice-loving ethos and their alignment with it.
Mari and co-founder Doug Evans built Organic Avenue from a concept born in her Chinatown loft—until neighbors complained about the juicers and morning foot traffic. The first store opened in 2006 on Stanton Street.
After selling a majority stake and exiting the brand, Mari and Evans watched the soulful company they’d founded become a much less desirable version of a Pret A Manager, then into irrelevance, then bankruptcy. Last fall Organic Avenue’s assets were put up for sale "turnkey or piecemeal." Ouch. Then in December of 2015 Crains reported it was acquired at auction for 1.7 million, and plus almost another million in rents owed to landlords of the stores.
Meanwhile, Mari, who’d been focused on raising her young son Oliver from Mari Manor, a sometimes B&B in the Hamptons, says “a miracle of events happened recently to bring her in touch with, Steven Fisher, founder of Fisher Capital Investments, who bought the debt and whole kaboodle, preventing chopping up of the stores. “Steve is excited to help Organic Avenue reach its potential and support its growth,” says Mari.
The first store openings and menus will expand on Mari's vision
Four initial locations will be opening beginning this week, starting with 62 Bleecker at Crosby on Tuesday, followed by Chelsea at 216 Eighth Ave, at 21st Street; 5 Bryant Park (the largest location), and Midtown East, 649 Lexington Avenue, depending on when the new build-outs will be completed “so they look more like lifestyle stores," Mari explains. (Look for updates at www.OrganicAvenue.com or instagram.com/organicavenue.)
The Chelsea location will serve as Organic Avenue’s juice bottling commissary, which will help foster a first-ever wholesale division. Mari is calling the wholesale blends, which will be HPP'd in plastic bottles “double-pressed”—first when the fresh ingredients are cold pressed, then pressed again when the blend is HPP’d. “It’s my marketing term for it, she says candidly, “but [using HPP is] the law if you want to sell your non-pasturized juices outside your own stores.” Made to order, raw, cold-pressed juices will be sold at the stores, along with healthy foods items that are raw, vegan, and/or gluten-free, will come from third-party companies.
The essence of the original Organic Avenue will remain the same, Mari says. “We are a lifestyle company focused on sharing a vegan, plant-based diet and how delicious it can be, how rewarding it actually is.”
Mari’s buzzing about new in-store organic espresso bars that will serve vegan and gluten-free pastries and MacaLattes.
Some former menu favorites making a comeback include juice blends like the Royal Red (a Mari favorite) and the coconut water, raw soups like the Spicy Avocado and Gazpacho, the ridiculously delish chocolate mousse, coconut probiotic yogurt, zucchini hummus, Powerhouse smoothie, and house-made Organic Avenue Nut Mylk.
Mari’s buzzing about new in-store organic espresso bars that will serve vegan and gluten-free pastries and things like MacaLattes and Immortality Coffee. “I am really excited about these Specialty Alternatives, and our made-to-order cold-pressed Serenity Juice (a green juice with fennel) plus new Pitaya (Dragon Fruit) Bowls,” she says.
What inspired her to return Organic Avenue?
After a nasty divorce, its common to have reservations about about returning. But Mari explains it wasn’t like that for her.
Organic Avenue was built from an authentic passion and a connection to a greater purpose….That same passion and purpose drive me to reinvigorate Organic Avenue today.”
She and Doug left Organic Avenue three years before the bankruptcy, and she keeps her vision of the business separate from the Organic Avenue that continued without her. “I wouldn’t say I lost any money, she adds. “We had a successful 10 year run prior and grew Organic Avenue into the iconic brand we know it as today. It was built from an authentic passion, a lot of sweat, and a connection to a greater purpose….That same passion and purpose drive me to reconnect and reinvigorate Organic Avenue today.”
Under the new era, with Fisher Capital owning the majority stake of Organic Avenue, it sounds again like Mari’s own finances weren’t involved. She’s essentially employee number one.
Continuing Mari’s mission of growing Organic as a lifestyle brand
Mari’s absence was palpable not just at Organic Avenue during the transition years, but on the juice scene.
While “not a numbers person,” Mari was the brand visionary and her passion made people want to be part of something she was creating, whether related to alkaline foods, detoxing practices, or a vegan sensibility, either for health reasons or for the “respect of animals.” Like many children, Mari felt a love for animals, which never faded, and the early death of her sister influenced "her fear and curiosity" around food and health.
The Organic Avenue she created, Mari says, was a lifestyle brand, not just a juice brand. "Juice is just what really resonated with New Yorkers," so she went on to develop dozens of blends, create and deliver cleanses, which became the biggest part of the business.
Maybe for this reason, even though the juice scene’s grown even more competitive, Fisher Capital isn't overly concerned about the juice market's saturation. “We are proud to partner with Denise on her mission to provide inspiration, resources and support for plant-based organic living,” says Steven Fisher, not even mentioning the word juice.
How big the opportunity is or stakes are now for Organic Avenue is hard to tell. Even so, Mari doesn’t sound like she’s going to let the spiritual opportunity pass to do the life’s work she feels she was put her to do.
“Truth be told, I did not partner with [Fisher Capital] to solely re-launch retail stores, I partnered to re-launch an iconic lifestyle brand with a sincere mission and a global vision,” she says. “I am humbled, honored and excited to be bringing the LOVE* back to NYC and beyond.”
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