The state-mandated shut-down of restaurants and eateries to control the spread of coronavirus in March 2020 turned out to be the first vacation Monique Rousseau-Stewart had in eight years.
“I couldn’t go anywhere, but it was just wonderful to sit at home,” says Rousseau-Stewart, owner of Blendees. “I mean, I practically didn’t get off the couch for a month.”
A former financial analyst, she hadn’t realized how hard she’d been working six days a week since 2012 to establish her small smoothie business, or how close she might have been to burn out until she had an opportunity to slow down.
Her small smoothie stand in El Cajon, known for off-the-menu specials like the Bleeding Hulk (a blend of fresh power greens and beets), is often mistaken for a franchise business because there’s a simplicity and polish to her logo, menu, and signage that usually signals lots of R&D and corporate backing. But the 10-by-10 foot stand located on an island in the center of a parking lot developed organically over nearly a decade of what Rousseau-Stewart says were divine nudges.
She left the corporate world after finding out that a co-worker with the same workload and similar experience was making far more than she. It hurt and she admits that if she hadn’t been so impulsive, she would have stayed, renegotiated her salary, and possibly been content. Now, she knows that she would never have been happy.
She left without giving two weeks’ notice and took on another corporate position that paid better but was also unfulfilling.
Rousseau-Stewart found herself depressed and stressed. She went to therapy and says that she asked God for guidance. She jokes that he’d been giving her hints all along, so she finally started listening.
Rousseau-Stewart had been making smoothies as a fundraiser for her son’s youth football team and she enjoyed it, so she thought about how to make that a business. She used to work the team’s concession stand. They sold nachos, candy bars, potato chips, chicken wings, and high-calorie sodas—typical sports snack foods with little nutritional value and high sugar content.
“One day, I was like we have to do better,” she says. The concession stand was also the refueling station for the team during breaks and at the end of games. It disturbed her that after expending all that energy on rigorous exercise, the boys were replacing those spent calories with junk food.
She got the idea to make smoothies. Rousseau-Stewart remembered working the blender at a friend’s barbecue making fruit drinks for guests, but she was a little nervous that the kids and their parents would reject her attempt to offer something healthier.
“The day I first brought out the blender, there was the longest line I’d ever seen at our table,” Rousseau-Stewart says. “It was a hit. A real hit.”
She kept it simple: A few frozen fruits bought in bulk from a warehouse grocery chain and a household blender—frozen strawberries and bananas with pineapple or mango—crafted into multiple combinations of two or three fruits for $2.
The kids couldn’t get enough. The ingredients were inexpensive and so were her prices. Given the option of drinking blended fruit at a comparable price to sugary sodas, kids opted for the fruit.
Then she started juicing and blending drinks for herself and her family at home and it changed her life. Her energy, her health, and her blood work were stellar. Her son no longer struggled to lower his weight for team weigh-ins. She developed options for her husband dealing with diabetes.
Rousseau-Stewart knew she wanted to offer the same health benefits to more families, especially the Black families that were also part of her son’s team, their church, and their community.
Smoothie bars aren’t common in predominantly Black neighborhoods often known for being fresh food deserts. Rousseau-Stewart, who is originally from the south side of Chicago, wanted to change that. She bought a tent and launched a mobile food stand with her husband. She booked events at churches, school carnivals, events, weddings, and parties.
Many of her early customers were not Black and she says that people commented with surprise about a Black woman owning a smoothie business. Some shockingly commented on her curves, as if a woman who didn’t have a single-digit dress size couldn’t possibly run a health food business. The comments made her sad, but they didn’t make her angry even when they questioned her business knowledge. More than a few insisted that her prices were too low.
“That one annoyed me the most because I know how much my ingredients cost. Why should I increase my prices just because and keep healthier food out of the reach of the people who need it the most,” Rousseau-Stewart explains. “I know exactly what I’m doing. My prices might change one day, but not just to drive up profit.”
She says she’d rather be affordable to more customers than increase single ticket sales. She knows she has a greater purpose and part of that purpose is to change perceptions.
“I was glad for the people who said those things because I know other people were thinking it, but just didn’t say it,” Rousseau-Stewart explained. “It’s better to know and be prepared so those comments don’t hurt you and you can keep going and be better.”
Rousseau-Stewart was doing just that, working on her marketing, continuing to perfect her menu, and researching which blends worked best with certain illnesses. Customers with diabetes, looking for weight management, recovering from cancer, or looking to boost their immunity are repeat customers who typically ask her for advice on what to order.
Since reopening, Rousseau-Stewart notes that she has had more customers, but surprisingly more Black customers. Her stand is less than 100 feet from Popeye's Chicken, so when their chicken sandwich went viral the line of cars for the fast-food chain literally wrapped around her food stand for weeks. The traffic was unreal, but her business didn’t surge, it plummeted.
Flocks of mostly Black customers waited for an hour or more, but few left their cars to stop by her stand for a drink as they waited to eat a social media sensation. She says that she gave out samples but it didn’t yield many converts.
“I was hustling, but they came for a greasy chicken sandwich, not a smoothie with greens, pomegranate, or passion fruit,” she says with a laugh. “I understood it. I didn’t grow up eating kale either.”
Now, Rousseau-Stewart says that she’s been on the receiving end of that kind of viral social media attention. She had no idea a post was circulating to highlight Black-owned businesses in San Diego and she didn’t know that she was included until a customer told her that she was “trending on Twitter.”
“I was shocked, just shocked and overwhelmed,” Rousseau-Stewart says. She had recently ordered new sidewalk signage and she initially thought that her brilliant marketing had finally paid off. She laughs heartily about that now, “I had no idea what was going on, I thought man, I must be really doing something with these little sandwich board signs.”
Then she noticed her customers snapping photos of her booth and their $3 drinks or her bountiful $7 açaí bowl to document their trips to her stand.
The attention has leveled off, but she has more repeat customers from the initial rush returning for their favorites.
“It was crazy at the beginning, I was running out of inventory,” Rousseau-Stewart says. “I never run out of inventory. I mean there were days when I could sit out here for hours and maybe have one customer. The rush was crazy. Now that it has calmed down a bit, and I can spend time and talk to customers, this is pretty great.”