FARGO — For the last two years, Renae Cartier Mitchell and her family have run their business, the Juice Box Fargo, by renting commercial kitchen space and selling cold-pressed juices out of a little lime-green camper at the Red River Market and several other community venues.
But as the business has grown, it's become a tight squeeze for Mitchell and her kids, Jack and Josephine, to sell fresh-squeezed juices out of the tiny trailer. The actual juicing process takes place at Square One Kitchen in Fargo, but that has meant setting up from scratch with every batch.
Now the Juice Box is expanding from single-serve to family size.
Mitchell is establishing a 1,350-square-foot storefront at the new business development being built west of Burning Hearts Church on 40th Avenue South in Fargo. This new juice joint will allow customers to "grab and go" from a cooler of their popular cold-pressed juices and will include tables where customers can wait while their smoothies are made to order. The brick-and-mortar means patrons will no longer be limited to pre-ordering online and picking up drinks later.
Mitchell plans to transition their juicing operation to their new storefront by September or October, then open their retail space by Nov. 1. Mitchell envisions a "cozy, healing" environment — complete with a live greenery wall, a mural by local artists and plenty of reclaimed wood decor by Grain Designs.
Despite the move, she remains grateful for two local entities that helped to spark her start-up in the first place.
"I feel strongly I would not have been able to start this without the Red River Market and Square One Kitchens," Mitchell says. "I had no idea if there was even a market for this or whether people were willing to pay $8 for a bottle of juice."
Then again, this isn't just any juice. Mitchell has created a line of cold-pressed, nutrient-packed juices containing organic fruits and vegetables and anti-inflammatory ingredients like turmeric, lemon and kale.
Their juice starts at $7.50 for a 12-ounce bottle while her wellness shots — concentrated juice laced with beneficial herbs and spices — are $4. At a customer's request, Mitchell started making juice cleanses more recently. The cleanses, which start at $50, were so hot in January that filling orders almost brought Mitchell to the brink of physical exhaustion. Largely due to the cleanses, sales have nearly doubled in the last year.
Diabetes scare leads to dietary overhaul
Before Mitchell discovered the health benefits of juicing, she jokes she was like a "racoon eating out of a Dumpster."
Her job as an oil and gas photographer required lots of travel, which meant chain-drinking diet sodas and grabbing truck-stop pizza. "I managed to run my health into the ground," she says.
Seven years ago, Mitchell was diagnosed as pre-diabetic. She was motivated to radically change her diet. She now eats a largely plant-based diet, along with ethically raised, organic meats and lots of her own cold-pressed juices.
"I always tell people that it's a lot easier to add than subtract. Once we start adding good things into our diet, we will naturally want to eliminate the things that we know make us not feel good," she says.
In 2018, Mitchell studied to become a nutrition therapy practitioner. But ultimately, she realized "I didn't want to snatch their Diet Cokes from them ... I know it's hard making dietary changes."
Sharing the joy of juicing
One day in February of 2019, inspiration struck Mitchell. The one venture that continued to inspire her was juicing. She could get a "cute, little trailer," which she could bring to the Red River Market and pop-up events to bring juicing to the masses. Jack and Josephine would become part of the business, so they wouldn't lose valuable time together.
Mitchell's dad built the trailer for her, exactly as she envisioned. But there were growing pains ahead. She initially was thrown for a loop over the hard work required for large-scale juicing, which can mean processing 400 pounds of produce daily. Mitchell uses a two-step commercial juicer that grinds produce into a mash, then squeezes the mash with hydraulic plates to extract the juice. It produces a longer-lasting, higher-quality juice, but "it's just so labor-intensive," Mitchell says. "I was in tears at the end of the day."
They took the juice of their labors to their first Red River Market — and sold out in 2 1/2 hours. Suddenly, their efforts seemed worth it. "I found out there was definitely a market for what we're selling," Mitchell says.
When winter approached, Mitchell experienced sticker shock when she saw prices for organic produce quadruple. "I thought this is probably going to have to only be a Red River Market thing. I don't think this is going to work," she says.
Benefits beyond the bottom line
Then the pandemic hit. Mitchell had just bought $1,000 in produce for the next Red River Market when she learned it had been cancelled, due to COVID-19.
"I thought, 'Is my business officially done? What's happening?'" But once Mitchell accepted it, she was able to pivot to online ordering and curbside pickup. The outbreak turned out to be their biggest boost, as Mitchell started educating her customers on ways to enhance their immunity with nutritious juices. In April of '20, her numbers jumped. "That allowed me to start buying my produce wholesale. That was when things really shifted."
When the Red River Market did open, the Juice Box was jumping. "After COVID hit, people really embraced the small business," Mitchell says. "The outpouring of love and support from people in this community was overwhelming."
But her favorite benefit is one no spreadsheet can capture. She had vowed to make Juice Box Fargo family-centric, so her kids could learn about launching a new business and spend time with her before they headed off to college and careers.
It seems to have worked. "I love working with my Mom," says Josephine, who is 16. "It brings me a lot of joy."
Mitchell has vowed that if the business ever takes too much time away from her kids, she will step away from it. "You have such a short period of time with them," she says. "I don't want the storefront to be more important than our relationship."
Learn more at www.juiceboxfargo.com.