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When Will the Food World Embrace Moon Juice?

The LA brand hopes to go from “wellness” phenomenon to legitimate foodie craving

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For all the adaptogen superherbs and potent “rewilding” tonics it peddles, Moon Juice is highly inflammatory. Mention of the Venice, California, juice bar-turned-wellness phenom — or its proprietor, Amanda Chantal Bacon, whose identity is virtually inseparable from that of her brand — draws instant seething. The New Yorker: “Unapologetically esoteric.” New York Magazine: “She [makes] Gwyneth Paltrow look like Guy Fieri.” Jezebel: “Who would have thought that the American emphasis on purity would have dovetailed with… the insular dedication to self-improvement made possible by paranoid late capitalism in quite this exact way?”

Moon Juice opened its doors on Venice’s Rose Avenue six years ago, a 500-square-foot space funded by a $150,000 loan from Bacon’s friends and family. In 2011, “there weren't cool health places,” Bacon says, point blank. “I had this vision of doing a place that was aesthetically pleasing and was really gonna speak to the foodie,” a reimagining of the now-antiquated hippie-dippie wheatgrass juice bar.

“I was going to grab the person who had eaten pasta all night and had a hangover and give them a beautiful experience where they would be comfortable, with [staff] really to educate them, and serve them, and not make them feel ostracized,” she says. “Now that’s not really a novel point of view, but at the time there was nothing like this, and people thought [the concept] was insane.”

Being early to the 21st-century makeover of “health food” — think organic salad chain Sweetgreen and burgeoning vegan brand By Chloe — paid off. Moon Juice has grown to three Los Angeles storefronts, a robust e-commerce business, a booming list of wholesale accounts, and in-demand catering services — without spending a single advertising dollar.

But for every Moon Juice evangelist, there is someone whose eyes roll hard at mention of the company. The knee-jerk animosity may, in part, be innate to the business of selling green juice: To many people, 16 ounces of liquified vegetables sounds like a punishment. “There is a negative correlation between healthiness and tastiness in most consumers’ minds,” confirms Aner Tal, a research associate at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab and a Ph.D. in consumer behavior.

But the real tipping point for Moon Juice’s demonization is traceable to a 2015 article in Elle chronicling Bacon’s daily food diary. “I usually wake up at 6:30 a.m., and start with some Kundalini meditation and a 23-minute breath set,” it begins. “At 8 a.m., I had a warm, morning chi drink on my way to the school drop off... [it] has the super endocrine, brain, immunity, and libido-boosting powers of cordyceps, reishi, maca, and Shilajit resin.”

It is hard not to recoil from this image of Left Coast bourgeoisie “self-care,” borrowing from ancient Chinese and Hindu practices to complete a finicky-sounding, methodical ritual. But when we speak by phone, Bacon is actually quite self-aware, mellow, and funny. She takes the hate in stride, with a keen understanding of her position in the modern, stylish makeover of age-old hippie shit — and now, sees the backlash as just one step in her quest to attain food-world credibility, something she’s convinced she can achieve by doing it her unique way.

“Man, I was just trying to make some juice, but it’s converted to this pop culture moment and I hate it, but have a lot of faith in that process,” she says. “All I can think is, this must be exactly where I’m meant to be and this must be exactly the way that Moon Juice is gonna be the most potent story. When I get made fun of and when I get critiques, that’s also part of the story. Right?”

In the multiverse of pop culture, stories about Moon Juice follow one of two narratives. The first is that reflexive resentment from skeptical New York media and the food world proper, which treats $9 bottled juices and $11 nut mylks as icons of socioeconomic disparity. The second narrative takes place in the world of “wellness,” a recently rejiggered amalgamation of health, beauty, and fitness responsible for breeding athleisure, boutique fitness, and “clean eating.” Here, Moon Juice is salvation, so lauded it can’t meet demand.

“We have a really big kitchen and a really big crew,” Bacon says of Moon Juice’s Culver City commissary — just not big enough anymore. In addition to growing numbers in-store and in the e-commerce shop, the wholesale business is robust enough that “we just couldn’t keep up.”

Moon Juice’s secret weapon is its snack and pantry business. Under the moniker Cosmic Provisions, Moon Juice offers food products like Rainbow Juice & Seed Crisps (a flattened mixture of seeds, oats, root vegetables, and leafy greens), schisandra cacao papaya (cocoa-coated dried papaya with schisandra berry), vegan protein powder derived from activated brown rice, bulk oats and nuts, and powdered herbs and spices ranging from common (pink salt, raw vanilla, cardamom) to unpronounceable (mucuna pruriens, tocotrienols, cordyceps).

Despite the potential for turn-off between the showy product names and the alien ingredients, the food is pretty tasty. Bacon’s roots are in hospitality: She has an education from the New England Culinary Institute and spent a decade working in kitchens like Chez Panisse, Lucques, and Canele, under Alice Waters, Suzanne Goin, and Steve Van Gelder. She was also once a reporter for Los Angeles Times magazine’s food section.

“There is a reason why chefs are attracted to Moon Juice, and it’s because I do come from their world, and I do understand their language,” Bacon says. “I understand I’m not making rillettes and duck sauce anymore, but it’s still food. I’m still feeding people. It is a new way to look at food and, I’m sorry, it’s the future of food.” Consumers, however, are still more likely to find Bacon’s food items at retail stores like Urban Outfitters and local boutiques and yoga studios, further fueling the idea that the snacks are more “lifestyle item” than everyday snack.

Those competing narratives came to a head when Bacon released The Moon Juice Cookbook, 256 pages of “cosmic alchemy” (in layman’s terms: recipes), late last year. While ravenously consumed and reviewed by Vogue and W magazine (which called it “The Joy of Cooking for the kale set” — a positive thing), it’s been largely ignored by food media. “I just worked two years on a cookbook with legitimate recipes, and no food people have talked about it,” Bacon says, a mix of confusion, frustration, and sorrow in her voice. “It’s been beauty, fashion, lifestyle — the New York Times, Vanity Fair, big pieces internationally — but how come no food people will acknowledge it?”

It’s not like “food people” are entirely turned off by the idea of wellness (who doesn’t want to feel “well”?) or the modern iteration of it. Restaurants like Los Angeles’s Sqirl and Manhattan’s Dimes have managed to pick up plenty of positive food-world press (and cool-kid clout) while serving annoying-sounding things like turmeric tonic and Magic Toast, respectively. But part of their individual successes, notably, have come from not going all-in with the healthy thing.

“We’re not preaching any kind of special diet or lifestyle,” says Alissa Wagner, Dimes co-owner and chef. “We’re just promoting the way that we like to eat, which also just happens to be [healthy]. We’re not exclusionary, we’re not vegetarian, or gluten-free, or any of those things.” That said, the restaurant does offer dishes that are all of the above.

While nothing in Moon Juice’s brand language condemns any sort of diet, it has built itself an image — and isn’t that what branding is? — that suggests it is health-obsessed in a haughty way. Though its founder would disagree. “Never once have I ever spoken out against enjoying food as art or eating animals,” Bacon asserts. “I come from that world… Nothing I'm doing is a threat to that. It enhances that. The culture is not mutually exclusive.”

If Moon Juice can communicate its position as a component of one’s diet — and not a brand for well-heeled orthorexics — it has the potential to follow others brands’ lead and ride the wellness wave to the crest of mass culture. “In these last 10 years, you’ve seen this flood of information on food: how it’s grown, where it’s grown, what it does to your body,” says Nicolas Jammet, co-founder and co-CEO of Sweetgreen. The Chipotle-style salad chain, with 64 restaurants to date and projections for nearly 100 locations by end of year, is arguably the largest “healthy” fast-casual brand. “With this information, people are completely rethinking their relationship with food,” Jammet says.

For Moon Juice, opportunity to scale in a similar way has come knocking. “We’ve had huge, huge retailers come to us — the accounts that every other food business is really vying for, like, ‘My God, if I could get one or two of these accounts, that would be my food business,’” Bacon says, but also admits hesitation: “I’m so picky where it’s like, well, if we’re gonna do that, everything has to taste exactly the same, and be as beautiful and perfect and boutique feeling as it is now. I think this is something that restaurant people could relate to. I’ve worked for these chefs where it’s like, ‘No, my name is on the restaurant. Every plate has to be perfect,’” Bacon says. “I come from that school, that is very much who I am — which is not good for the massive snack industry.” She laughs. “But I do think we’ll crack the code.”

Bacon’s integrity is admirable, but growing to the national stage as a food business may require come concessions to be made, among them, a softened image. “At the end of the day, if you want to build this healthy brand in this approachable, accessible way, there’s an essence of pull and push,” Jammet says. “You want to meet people where they are, but also bring them along on this journey. [At Sweetgreen] we’ve always tried to keep that balance of really engaging folks in a conversation about food that doesn’t feel too foreign to them but still feels new.”

Acquiring new customers while simultaneously asking them to trust you is no easy feat, especially when you're dealing in something as personal as diet. “Customers are wary in general of companies deceiving them,” says Tal. “They know that health and wellness are current ‘trends,’ and are aware that health and wellness claims make for great selling points.”

That aside, Bacon is determined, doubling-down on the idea that food enthusiasts will come along for the journey even if there’s a wellness component at its core. One way Moon Juice is working to convert skeptics is by working with the Food and Drug Administration to add approved claims to its packaging, leaning into the health angle even more. “Our next round of packaging is going to reflect a lot more of that,” Bacon says, though there isn’t much she can reveal at this stage. “Here’s what I can say: I can tell you that the FDA is comfortable with me after looking at these studies saying, ‘Yes, it does decrease anxiety and depression. Yes, this thing actually does give you elasticity in your skin.’”

But will “beauty foods” be any less mockable if they’re science-backed? Will Bacon ever win over the food world? Does she need to? If Americans are warming up to a plant-based diet and Moon Juice is already there, maybe Bacon just sits and waits: With time, the divide between “food” and “wellness” will close, and Bacon is in it for the long game.

“I could understand where it comes from,” Bacon says of the hostility. “It used to be that you had the old-school health people; they were freaks, like, ‘If you eat animals, you're the devil.’ Then you had old-school Frenchie chefs who were like, ‘If you don't eat a pound of butter a day, and smoke, and drink four bottles of wine, you're a pussy!’ Those days are over. That divide isn’t serving anyone and most of those dudes are dead.”

Nicola Fumo is a freelance writer who congratulates you for making it to the end of this article.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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