The açai craze in the United States is still a relatively new one, and SoBol founder and CEO Jason Mazzarone has been at the forefront of this food trend from the beginning. Founded in 2014, SoBol was one of the earlier brands to provide açai bowls in a fast-casual setting.
“It’s a relatively healthy alternative to your daily meals,” Mazzarone said of açai bowls. “In terms of fast-casual or QSR, this is right up there with nutritional benefits of salads and simpler menu items.”
The açai berry is originally from Brazil and the bowl product entered the U.S. market in California about 20 years ago. By that time, the fruit had already been around in different products in the U.S., Mazzarone said. As more and more people got into açai bowls, more ingredients were added and the food transitioned.
“Celebrities and social media made it mainstream in the last five years and the fruit made significant strides in the last three years as more shops opened up and established themselves as offering niche products,” Mazzarone said.
The timing for açai was also perfect for other reasons.
“We also evolved during a time when different food allergies, especially gluten, were coming into play more,” Mazzarone said. “Also, different eating lifestyles, such as vegetarian and vegan, have grown substantially over the last five to 10 years. So the timing was good because we came into a market that was growing significantly.”
Mazzarone emphasized that the SoBol brand is meant to be enjoyed by everyone, from health nuts to people who just want a bite to eat.
“Our customer is everyone,” he said. “An açai bowl is a delicious product, but it also makes you feel decent after you eat it. A lot of QSR food makes you feel sluggish after, whereas ours gives you the opportunity to fill your belly with healthy nutrients to get you to your next meal and keep you feeling energized.”
He noted that younger customers want a tasty and inexpensive lunch while adult customers want to live longer, and that the average American is more conscious about what they’re putting in their bodies.
And everyone wants to feel good after they eat.
“It was good timing with our product because so many people are looking for cleaner options,” he said.
Word of mouth has been the best marketing by far for açai bowls, he said.
“That has helped the growth,” he said. “An açai bowl is is so different than what you typically eat for lunch. It takes on the vibe of almost a dessert, but you can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. And then there’s the movement to healthier dining overall. We’ve all benefited from that in the space.”
SoBol puts several measures in place to stay competitive in an increasingly saturated segment. With more and more brands focusing on health and offering healthy eating options, paying close attention to detail is crucial.
“Customers want something delicious of great value in a clean environment and served by a friendly staff,” Mazzarone said. “Those are the things that drive us. We get our fruit in fresh every day. We have our own proprietary recipe for granola, which I started off making in my mom’s kitchen, so the texture and flavor of a homemade product sets us apart. And we have our Brazilian partners sourcing us the best açai possible. So it’s a culmination of our values, which focus on the customer experience, using high-quality products and forming great partnerships.”
The brand has also prioritized staying on top of food-buying trends. Online ordering and third-party delivery demand prompted the brand to look into alternative ways to help consumers get their açai bowl fix. Mazzarone admitted he was “late to the game” in this respect, but only because he did not want to see SoBol customers get charged “outrageous numbers” in delivery fees. The SoBol team eventually found that, in addition to having a great product, providing delivery services made the brand even more valuable.
“We recently launched online ordering and third-party delivery and are still collecting data, and we’d be happy if we can grow it to 15 to 20% of the business,” he said.
The brand also stands out by offering customization options while keeping the menu simple and straightforward.
“Our competitors will have 20 bowls with funny names, but we say: ‘Here are our bases and here are our toppings and you can customize a million ways,’” Mazzarone said.
SoBol finds that customers typically come in three to four times a week and the brand works very hard to prevent açai bowl burnout by providing variety.
“We knew we needed three bases: the pitaya bowl, the açai bowl and the kale-spinach green bowl,” Mazzarone said. “We’ve paired them up in a way that any bowl can be a smoothie and any smoothie can be a bowl. Do you want granola and fresh fruit? A base of açai with toppings of pitaya? Just a smoothie without any toppings? We have it all.”
In terms of toppings, the brand tries to keep things on the healthier side. Mazzarone and his team found that people tend to choose unhealthy options when they have them, so SoBol offers guests items such as house-made peanut butter and goji berries, along with hemp, chia and flax seeds.
“You can enhance your bowl but also keep it healthy,” Mazzarone said. “Healthy, delicious and a good value—that’s our jam. To provide something affordable, offer great value, be aesthetically pleasing and have nutritional benefits is really what SoBol is all about.”
Mazzarone emphasized that it’s not only the health, convenience or great value that set SoBol apart; it’s the brand’s commitment to all three.
“If we weren’t delicious, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are,” said Mazzarone “We get people here because açai bowls are fast, cool, healthy and taste good. Some people don’t even care that it’s healthy. They just think it tastes good. We needed all of that to be standalone.”
With such a commitment to providing high-quality food, SoBol is well-positioned for long-term success in the QSR space.
“We care about our franchisees, staff and customer base,” Mazzarone said. “If you care, you have a much better chance of being successful. We don’t believe we’re a trend. We believe we’re here to stay in the segment as a healthy alternative to breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks or dessert. There is other competition doing açai bowls, but they don’t have every pillar we have.”