Acai, the super food super trend that's good for you, and good for business

College buddies Mike Quinn and Dan Nestor are by no means aura-gazing, wellness-seeking, chakra-aligning, surfer-dude types.

But the 30something entrepreneurs know what a good business opportunity looks like.

This is why in April, the buttoned-up bros opened Philadelphia’s first açai bowl-only eatery, SoBol at 17th and Chestnut Streets in Rittenhouse Square. For those of you not up on this fruit-topped trend, at the center of this smoothie-in-a-cup is açai, a Brazilian berry so rich in vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids that nutritionists consider it a super food.

>>READ MORE: SoBol, a New York-rooted açaí-bowl specialist, opens  in Rittenhouse

The SoBol bowl, however, is much yummier than classic açai bowls, because instead of a soupy base, SoBol’s açai is blended into a frozen puree that is sorbet-like. Then the deep-purple mixture is topped with granola, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, a sprinkle of coconut, and a drizzle of honey.

The Center City SoBol is part of an almost four-year-old Long Island-based franchise and is smack in the center of one of the city’s most health-conscious, casual foodie hoods. For that reason, the Philly SoBol has become popular with the after-yoga, after-spinning, after-Orange Theory crowd.

(Quinn, 33, and Nestor, 32, will open a second, twice-as-big, location in University City next month.)

Camera icon Heather Khalifa / Staff Photographer
Mike Quinn (left) and Dan Nestor at the SoBol in Rittenhouse Square. They’ll open a second location in University City next month.

“As we see it, we want to be the Subway of açai,” Quinn seriously joked with me on a recent, steamy Thursday afternoon. “The funny part is that our original game plan was to open first in the suburbs and work our way into the city. But then we saw how the  fitness crowd was really changing the city and we knew our concept would fit right in.

>>READ MORE: As our definition of luxury shifts, Walnut Street evolves with it. 

Piled high with  colorful fruit, the açai bowl certainly looks healthy, but depending on the additional specialty toppings you chose — we’re talking sweet mangos, velvety cookie butter, mouthwatering Nutella — you could be ingesting lots of unintended  calories. The good news is if you stick to the basic banana, blueberry, and strawberry option, you will take in just 425 calories, Quinn said. And that’s about equal to  a 24-ounce WaWa coffee with cream, sugar, whipped — the whole nine yards. (Breakfast sandwich is extra.)

Açai (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) grows like wildfire in the Brazilian rain forests and has been a mainstay of the indigenous Amazonian diet for centuries. In the 1970s, jiu-jitsu fighters training in the regions in and near the rain forest started snacking on smashed and liquefied forms of the berry as part of their diet. They reported a boost of energy. In time, they added bananas and other fruits to sweeten the dirty taste. Eventually, area surfers, volleyball players, and other beach-based athletes started powering up with açai bowls. Because the fruit perished so easily, it could be served only in areas in and around Brazil. Still, by the 1990s, açai bowls were all over the Amazon and were billed to tourists as the healthiest of native fares

In the late 1990s, American siblings Ryan and Jeremy Black were surfing and hanging out in Brazil, when they discovered açai bowls. By then, scientists knew the berry was rich in vitamin E, fiber, omega-9, and omega-6, and very low in sugar. To these young entrepreneurs, the idea of chilling at an açai bar was as appealing as setting up shop in a coffee house. Why not market açai as a health food? The Black brothers found a processing plant that could freeze the açai and ship it safely to their California headquarters. They began making açai bowls, bringing  them door to door to juice bars and smoothie establishments, and eventually did the same thing in Florida. Slowly but surely the açai bowl became all the rage with surfers who craved hearty, light meals to effectively catch the waves.

Over the next decade or so, açai — like kale, avocado, and sweet potatoes — became revered in the States for its super food properties. Some thought that a diet of açai could help in curing obesity, attention deficit disorder, and erectile dysfunction. Alas, some of these claims were proven to be far-reaching. But, still, in the same way it became cool to hold a Starbucks cup or carry a Barneys New York bag, it was now hip to have an açai bowl in hand.

Back in 2011, a then-25-year-old Jason Mazzarone was living in San Diego, surfing, eating açai bowls during the day and going to San Diego Culinary Institute at night. After finishing school, he went back home to Sayville, N.Y., where he worked at his mom’s Italian ice shop. He started selling açai bowls there. But something wasn’t right, so he experimented with his own granola and made improvements to his açai puree, blending in soy milk and bananas.

Camera icon HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Açai bowls can be served with a variety of toppings.

The result was an açai puree with a more solid consistency than a typical açai bowl. He also made a bowl with pitaya, or dragon fruit, also found in Central and South America that boasts similar antioxidant properties as açai. (It’s worth noting here that while good, the pitaya bowl is not as delicious as the açai bowl, but I digress.) Mazzarone opened his first SoBol in Sayville in 2014 and in 2016 sold the first franchise.

Now enter Quinn and Nestor. The millennials and owners of hospital cleaning company NexClean were at a franchise fair in New York in June 2017 when they met Mazzarone. It didn’t take much for Quinn and Nestor to get on the SoBol ball. And by the end of the year they signed a contract to open six SoBols in and around the Philadelphia area.

“I believe in the benefits of açai,” said Quinn, who studied nutrition and fitness at West Chester University, and worked as a personal trainer in his hometown of West Chester. “But I’m not about throwing it in people’s faces. It’s more about the experience rather than the checking a healthy person’s box. In other words, you don’t have to be all in your health to enjoy an açai bowl.”