Want to hear a story about two surfers with a blender that transformed their love of açaí bowls into an açaí chain? Meet Jersey-natives Robert Giuliani & Abby Taylor, owners of Playa Bowls—a healthy açaí bowl chain that serves delicious açaí, pitaya, coconut bowls and smoothies with sustainability & community in mind. One-click on to the restaurant’s website and you’re met with the phrase, “Welcome to Pineapple Land” alongside images of fresh, colourful fruit that get you craving the real thing. We spoke to Vivian Phung, the regional manager at Playa Bowls’ New Jersey locations, to learn more about the founders and her experience as a regional manager.
Vivian explains that Robert and Abby first conceptualised Playa Bowls while adventuring & surfing their way through South America. Unlike in the United States, every South American country has plenty of delicious and easy-to-find açaí spots. “They realised that these bowls of fruit made them feel so much better than going to grab something like a burger.” The first Playa Bowls was created in 2013 at a little blue cart right on the beach, on their home turf – the Jersey Shore.
The business was a quick success lines forming down the block from the get-go. Today in 2021, the market for sustainable chains and healthy food trends has skyrocketed. “People are changing their lifestyles,” Vivian says, noting that Playa Bowls is “allergen-free… a place you can go to with any restriction and find something delicious.” The rise of health trends Vivian has witnessed over her time at Playa Bowls is real. In fact, 54% of people care more about the healthfulness of their food and beverage choices in 2020 than they did in 2010… and healthfulness is the biggest converter, more so than taste and price.
Vivian says she just “blinked,” and there were Playa Bowls in six locations across Jersey: Rutgers, Newark, Hoboken, Rutherford, Union City, Watchung, Elizabeth. But her expertise within the restaurant industry didn’t happen overnight.
“I started working at my cousin's restaurant when I was 16. I figured I might as well just try it out and make some extra money while I'm in high school. Then I went to college, quit my job, and told myself I would never go into the food industry again. It wasn't that it was a terrible experience; I just felt like it wasn't for me. And then I went to work at CVS, and I just realized, wow, CVS is not for me either.”
It was the owners of the locations she manages, Lizzette Pagan and Lamar McCloud. , who re-ignited her love for food and the service industry. “They are very, very giving about sharing whatever they learn about new business practices, even if it's not within my range. Honestly, my bosses are the reason why I say I'm really happy with my job even though, you know, sometimes it's a little bit stressful. But when is the food industry not stressful?”
Vivian has passed this knowledge down to her own employees by being a “mama bear” to her “kids,” who are often college and high school students working in the restaurant industry for the first time. She empowers them to be creative about positioning their locations, even if they don’t have a managerial role. “We try to make it a better experience for not only the customer but also us.”
Still, managing a bunch of college students inevitably leads to a high turnover rate. Something the restaurant industry is struggling with on a larger scale—especially with the pandemic-induced labor shortage.
Playa Bowls was grateful to have been able to stay open throughout the pandemic. Vivian credits their healthy food as one of the reasons they persevered. “I think people wanted to boost their immune systems, especially during the tough times of the pandemic. And Playa Bowls are super healthy.”
Still, as any other restaurant worker will tell you, the shift to delivery—especially in their higher volume areas—wasn’t easy. Vivian missed her regulars, those who would plop in during their lunch breaks at work daily and converse with the staff. Plus, the constant policy changes were a lot to handle as a regional manager. But even more challenging was dealing with multiple tablets to manage all the third-party apps. “I remember us trying to look at 17 different tablets trying to figure out oh, man, what order was this? Who do I have to contact for this? Otter solved that problem.”
At first, Playa Bowls signed up for an Otter-competitor to aid all the newfound delivery headaches but were quickly disappointed with the lack of customer service. “We weren’t notified when anything went wrong. That’s the nicest way I’ll put it.” So Vivian and her coworkers gathered for an admin meeting and began searching for other delivery solutions to help simplify the delivery process. That’s when they came across Otter.
Signing up for Otter made Vivian’s life a lot easier. Beyond eliminating multiple tablets and logins, Vivian found Otter’s analytic capabilities especially helpful. “I love the dashboard feature for analytics. Because we're always looking to see where we can do better in terms of orders. So having all the data analytics in one area, with one login, made my life so much easier. We can track different campaigns and also multiple locations, tracking which items are more popular in which stores. ”
Vivian is comforted by Otter’s customer service and guidance because she sees delivery as the future of the restaurant industry. “I think that indoor dining is going to be way less frequent than how we're used to... delivery will continue to be huge.” Indeed, savvy restaurateurs will be riding the big delivery wave into 2022 and beyond.
If you're in the US, click here to find a Playa Bowls near you. Available for delivery on Doordash, Grubhub, Postmates, and Uber Eats. Vivian recommends the AFI energy, which tastes like strawberries and has antioxidants. Or the oatmeal, which she says is underrated. But since Playa Bowls is your slice of summer, anytime—you really can’t go wrong.