Summer 2014: If you could look back at the first couple of weeks in Playa Bowls history, back when we were still just a couple of blenders under a purple umbrella, there’s a good chance you’d catch me crying my eyes out. Don’t get me wrong, the early days were fun. We loved watching the big reactions when people tried an acai bowl for the first time.
The problem was, in between those first few occasional customers, there were lulls. And during those lulls, Abby and I had to sit there and watch the line from Jimmy’s Placestretch all the way down the sidewalk, right past our stand. Those lulls drove me insane. I was looking at dozens of people would rather stand on line for 40 minutes, just for a sandwich or a slice of pizza, when they could have been trying a Playa Bowl right NOW.
Those first couple of weeks were so inconsistent that we couldn’t even pay people to take us seriously. One night, Abby and I had dinner at a local place called Ragin’ Cajun. Our waitress was a sweetheart named Brenna. We asked her if she wanted to make some extra cash working at our stand, and she told us that she already had a day job, selling hot dogs. So, just to reiterate: We tried to bring Brenna in on the ground floor of Playa Bowls. And she went with hot dogs.
June turned to July, and our net was getting its butt kicked by our cost of goods. And every night, Jimmy would stomp upstairs to my apartment to count his money. So if you still don’t understand how often a grown man can break down crying, try to imagine a crazy Greek pizza tycoon counting thousands of dollars on top of a chest freezer, while that freezer was stuffed full of acai that nobody was buying.
But all along, we were marketing our butts off. And I’m not talking about real marketing. I’m talking about annoying, DIY, sunburn-and-board-shorts guerilla marketing. I’m talking about marching up and down the Belmar beach, sticking little fliers in peoples’ hands and pointing over the dunes toward our purple umbrella.
Those very first fliers cost me $500. So naturally, I got into a big emotional shouting match with the print department at Staples. But I needed those fliers, because by early July, I had identified a very powerful market: Young and hungover.
And let me be perfectly clear: You don’t need to be hungover to enjoy an acai bowl. But the next time you wake up on a hot summer morning with a bad headache and a spotty recollection of the previous night, I’m telling you, there is nothing better than a Playa Bowl. (Coffee Surf is a close second.)
So where was I? Oh yeah: Hiking up and down the beach, introducing ourselves to lifeguards, badge checkers, locals, tourists, dogs, babies, anybody who would listen, but especially the kids with bloodshot eyes and last night’s stamps on their hands. Those early Playa Bowls fliers came with the basic menu info, and one very important little selling point: The world’s best hangover cure.
Fast-forward to mid-July of ’14. It wasn’t a weekend or a holiday, it was quite literally just another day at the beach. Abby had been bartending the night before, so I opened the stand by myself, and for the first hour or two, it was the usual: Jimmy was killing it, while I was working on my sunburn.
Then, a few people wandered over. I took their orders and got busy. Next thing I knew, I looked up and there were 30 people on my line. And the irony is, I barely knew how to make an acai bowl. Sure, I was pitching and selling and marketing acai bowls, but actually making them was Abby’s specialty. And there I was, with our very first great big rush of customers, and me throwing ingredients together like a kid in home ec class.
Thank God, that was the very same morning that our Ragin’ Cajun waitress decided to change her mind. I still don’t know how or why she chose that particular morning to accept our offer, but I swear, I looked up and there was Brenna, right beside me, taking orders. I remember thinking: Who’s watching the hot dogs?
Maybe those weeks of guerilla marketing were finally beginning to click. Or maybe, just maybe, the fact that I had been filling those orders by myself, slower than usual, meant that my first few customers had to stand there and form a line, which eventually becomes something called demand. That was the morning that I became aware of the crowd effect. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.
As soon as we had some real cash coming in, we hired more girls. And I had a brand new mantra, which I clung to like a psycho: Always run the blenders. Even if nobody’s around to order anything, put ice in the blenders and blend. The sound of a blender on a hot summer day gets people to look your way. And people looking your way gets other people to look your way. Hence, the crowd effect.
On our very best day in 2014, we grossed $1800. And back then, after an $1800 day, we felt like total ballers, like the two luckiest beach bums on Planet Earth. I’m not ashamed to say that Abby and I took that $1800, threw it all over my bed and spent the night rolling around in cash.
That brings me back to 2019: These days, on the right summer morning, our flagship Belmar store grosses $1800 in the first two hours alone. We just opened our 76th location. And Brenna Trumper, our very first employee ever, is crushing it as an operations manager.
And now I realize, if we’d launched this company with some angel investor handing us a big fat marketing budget, Playa Bowls would have never blown up the way it did. Starting with nothing meant we had no choice but to introduce ourselves, form friendships and call in favors all over town. If you can do all that with a smile on your face, people will root for you. Throw in a great product, and sooner or later, they will line up for you.
And sure, we still get lulls here and there. Every business does. But if you outlast the lulls, sooner or later, the right wave always comes along.
Rob Giuliani is the co-founder and CEO of Playa Bowls. In partnership with co-founder Abby Taylor, the company has grown to over 70+ locations nationwide and over $40M in revenue in less than five years. This is the third installment of a regular column that explores the Playa Bowls business story in all its glory. Be sure to check back each month for updates to the Playa Chronicles.