Saved By The Bowl: The Exotic Purple Food That Got Me Out Of Scrubs And Launched A Phenomenon

Published by Robert Guiliani on March 20, 2019

I'm standing in the operating room at Monmouth Medical Center, using a laser pointer to show the surgeon where to put a suture. There's an unconscious body on the operating table, some dude with his shoulder sliced wide open. We're halfway through a two-hour rotator cuff surgery, and the phone in my pocket is vibrating like crazy. Finally, I ask the doctors to take a quick breather so that I can answer the call.

I step outside and answer: It's Jimmy, from Jimmy's Place, the crazy Greek blowhard who's been letting me share his business license. He's fighting with my girlfriend again, and my dog is on the loose, eating pizza crusts off the dirty sidewalk, and Jimmy is this close to shutting down our little Playa Bowls stand for good. So I jump in my Acura and speed back to Belmar, where Jimmy, Abby and I continue our meltdown in person.

But wait, that might be a weird place to begin. Let me backup, tell you about the first time I had an acai bowl. It was Puerto Rico 2013, on a surf trip with my buddy Anthony. We had seen some locals eating this funny purple slop mixed with fresh fruit, and I'm a guy who will put just about anything in my mouth, food allergies be damned. 

From my very first bowl, I was hooked. For the rest of our trip, we went out of our way to start every session with acai bowls. I was still craving the stuff long after I got back to Jersey. It didn't make sense that something so fresh and natural and delicious wasn't more popular back in the real world.

And here's the thing about me: I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian or some kind of health freak. I love carbs and grease and gluten, and there have been many nights when I've straight-up poisoned myself. But like most people, I try to eat healthy, when I can. When I eat right, I feel right. 

Now, let me back up even further. Since 2009, I had been working as a device rep for a big medical supplier. It was a good job, but still a job. By early '14, I was making decent money, with a nice little pad on Ocean Avenue, directly above Jimmy's Place. Back then, I didn't think of myself as an entrepreneur, but it was always there. You know you're an entrepreneur when you're ready to trade comfort and security for a challenge. 

And at the time, Abby was bartending at DJais. Also making decent money, but equally restless. See, unlike yours truly, Abby is incredibly talented. She's a brilliant artist, an amazing surfer, and she could make an acai bowl that you would swear came straight from Rincon, right there in my little kitchen. 

Back then, Abby and I had a lot of rambling conversations about what we wanted to do with our lives. Not just ways to make money, but what we wanted to do. We're opposite in many ways, but we have the same passions: Surfing, snowboarding, food, travel. And sometimes, passion is the business plan.

Once or twice during those rambling conversations, I suggested that Abby could pop up a little stand. She could make smoothies and acai bowls for beachgoers, maybe sell some of her artwork. Keep in mind, I never dreamed that this little stand would make anybody rich. But I had a feeling that it would make us happy.

It was April 2014 when I carried one of Abby's acai bowls down the apartment stairs and shoved it in front of Jimmy. And keep in mind, Jimmy's Place specializes in pizza, cheesesteaks, pork roll, that sort of thing. He'd never even heard of acai before, but he ate the whole bowl and washed it down with a Budweiser. That's when I told him our idea: Abby and I wanted to sell these bowls on the sidewalk in front of his place, right there at 804 Ocean.    

You don't need an MBA to know that this is not The Way It's Usually Done. There was no market research, no location scouting, no formal business proposal. The original Playa Bowls was a K-Mart modular bar that my old roommate had abandoned on our balcony, and the location was literally spitting distance from our front door. As for the price, Jimmy said he'd think about it and get back to me with a number. He was probably waiting to see if we lasted a single weekend.

And look, I'm barely into the whole five-year history of Playa Bowls and you can already count a dozen ways in which we got very lucky. We were lucky to live directly above a location that gets steady foot traffic all summer long. We were lucky to live in a town that has seen five straight years of steady growth. I got lucky when Jimmy was cool enough to do business with a promise and a handshake. I'm lucky to have ever met Abby in the first place, at a time when we were both eager to try something new and crazy. 

But more important than any lucky breaks: We had a great product, and we knew it. We brought a cool, fresh, delicious tropical menu to a beach full of people, in a place where the nearest alternatives were hot, fried, or wrapped in plastic. We spent weeks giving out free samples, literally begging people to try a food that most of them had never heard of. Over and over again, the initial reactions were the same as my initial reaction: Instantly hooked. The lines got long, fast.

And once Jimmy saw our little stand catching on, that's when he moseyed on over to give me his price. He wanted $10,000 for the rest of the summer. I started crying, on the inside. 

On the outside, I stayed cool. I accepted without hesitation. Because I knew that Jimmy and I were both getting a sweet deal. And because Abby and I had finally found something we loved. In between the headaches and the meltdowns, we were having fun.

The lines got even longer. Right from that very first summer, Playa Bowls was more popular than anybody could have imagined. But it would be two more years before I quit my job in medical sales. Two whole years of chopping up bananas and strawberries in my scrubs, and then racing off to a hospital with peanut butter still on my hands. I kept one foot on the dock for as long as humanly possible. 

And that's because I still had no idea what I was doing. There would be many, many stormy days in our future, and some of those storms almost capsized the whole damn ship. If you keep reading, I promise: There are some epic shitshow disaster stories coming soon. 

But this is also the story of a phenomenon. And you're going to meet all kinds of wild characters who play a role in that story. Like my old roommate, John Castiglione, the same guy whose secondhand K-Mart bar became our first location. Five years later, John is a franchisee, and Playa Bowls Boston has been grossing 30K a week since opening in January.

OK, now let me try to turn this whole ramble into a point: If you're reading this because you want to be more successful, make sure you're not confusing money with happiness. Ask yourself what you're good at, and what makes you happy. Sometimes passion is the business plan. And if you're reading this from an operating room, I DO NOT advise interrupting a surgery just to follow your dreams. Just be ready to answer your phone, no matter who calls.

Back to all articles