Lifelong friends set out to create a juice oasis in a food desert on Springfield’s south side

When the Kroger on South Limestone Street closed on Wednesday, March 4 — the last remaining grocery store on the south side of Springfield — it left the neighborhood’s residents without a source for fresh, healthy food.

South-side residents have few options other than a sea of nearly 20 fast food restaurants along South Limestone Street.

But a group of five lifelong friends who graduated from Springfield South High School have recognized the lack of healthy choices and they are about to launch a business that they hope will both educate residents on the benefits of healthy eating and offer an alternative to the more prevalent burgers-and-fries option.

The Main Squeeze Juice Bar is scheduled to roll out on the south side in May — offering fresh squeezed juice to customers from a mobile cart.

“We looked at what Springfield needs, especially on the south side,” says Craig Williams, who founded Main Squeeze with partners Earl Taylor, Jafar Jones, Melvin Hardnick, and Marcus Clark. The five of them all have day jobs, ranging from running a clothing store to financial coaching. “We want to elevate people and help people change what they eat.”

Williams says fried foods and other unhealthy snacks are a lifestyle on the south side. He says he grew up liking chicken fingers and French fries (he uses the meal as a catch-all phrase for all fast food). As he developed a healthier lifestyle, Williams and his friends wanted to stop the spread of a junk food diet on the south side.

“When that is the most affordable option available then it's a problem that needs to be addressed,” he says.

Williams says they decided to sell juice, simply because it’s an easy way to get the daily allowances of fruits and vegetables. “We choose juice because people have a tendency to consume fruit in a liquid form more than a solid, which can be less messy depending on the fruit and easier to consume,” he says.

When it launches early this summer, the five men will use a generator, blenders, and coolers to operate Main Squeeze out of parking lots and at community events. In the colder months, out of the shared kitchen in the historic Bushnell Building, 16 N. Fountain Ave., the business will sell fresh-squeezed juice blends and educate patrons on the healthy benefits of fruits and vegetables.

The drinks are all-natural with no added sugar or other additives. “We’re not going to put a dollop of whipped cream on it, or chocolate, or anything like that,” says Taylor. “You get the sweetness from the fruit.”

Fast food neighborhood

Taylor, a financial coach with Wright-Patt Credit Union, points out that the closest grocery store with fresh produce is a 10-minute drive from the south side, and local farmers markets are at least a 15-minute drive. “But a lot of people don’t have access to transportation,” he points out.

Nearly 29,000 Springfield residents live within two miles of the now-closed Kroger, and many people in the low- and medium-income neighborhood do not own or have access to cars.

The partners say fast food has become a way of life on the south side. About five years ago, Taylor casually suggested starting a healthy food business. But the guys got serious about a year ago.

After Jones heard about Springfield Hustles — a business pitch competition launched by the Springfield Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to encourage local entrepreneurs to contribute to Springfield’s economy — the men decided to move forward.

“We felt like now was the right time in our lives to do something together, as we are at points in our lives where we could be a positive influence where we are from,” says Williams. “We want to help start the generational change in our communities. This is something that could potentially inspire our children to aspire to be better in all aspects of their lives.”

They are all former high school and college athletes — many of them still play competitively —and Taylor and Clark today coach track and football for Springfield High School. The men also have formed a running group to both keep themselves active and encourage the rest of the community to start exercising.

“We’re not totally health conscious, but we are aware of health and the role it plays in our lives,” says Taylor.

Kicking into high gear

The group did not compete in the Springfield Hustles competition, but it served as a springboard for moving forward. “We decided that having a business plan would be a good idea so we can outline our goals and potentially attract lenders if we decided that it would be necessary,” recalls Williams. “It gave us more incentive to go down there.”

On a day off from his full-time job taking claims at the Social Security Administration, he stopped into the SBDC and met Rob Alexander, the center’s executive director, who helped the team assess their goals, find out about resources, and create a business plan.

The group estimated the original food truck plan would require between $20,000 and $30,000—$40,000 to be safe, Taylor says. But Alexander convinced the men (who are self-funding the startup) to start small and scale Main Squeeze as the company grows.

As far as scaling the business, Alexander says Main Squeeze decided ultimately to start with a mobile operation that can fit into an SUV and set up in parking lots and at events, then move into a food truck, then a fleet of food trucks, and eventually a bricks-and-mortar location.

Alexander estimates Main Squeeze’s startup costs with the mobile setup will be under $5,000.

The group has not solidified locations, except for Jones’ clothing store, L.I.E. Store on Yellow Springs Street, but they plan to mainly stay on the south side. Williams says they hope to partner with the Springfield YMCA and businesses with parking lots around South Limestone Street. Eventually, they say they’d like to start juice delivery around Springfield.

The mission and the juice

All five men are keeping their full-time jobs. But they say they felt the urge to stress the importance of incorporating fruits and vegetables into diets.

“We feel it's necessary to educate people because education is power,” Williams says. “If we can provide the knowledge to others about what they eat and what it can do for their health, we feel that we can give them the power to better themselves.”

When Main Squeeze opens, they will offer six juice blends that will sell for $5. Menu items include juices with names like Porch Life (orange, pineapple, and mint), Love Bomb (grapefruit, strawberry, mango, and peaches), and The Green Kicked In (celery, kale, lemon, green apple, cucumber, and spinach).

“Minorities suffer the most in our nation from conditions that are treatable by having a healthy diet and active lifestyle and that is our main focus right now,” adds Williams.

The back of the juice menu lists various fruits and vegetables and their health benefits. For instance, carrots, celery, and spinach help fight diabetes; while bananas, strawberries, and pears help reduce stress.

“We want to show them that dragon fruit is good, kiwi is delicious, cucumber is refreshing,” says Taylor. “Even if we’re having a casual conversation, juice is one of the things we can break down [the health benefits] so they know about of it and feel educated enough to go forward.”

In addition to the six regular juice blends on the menu, a seventh option will be a juice-of-the-month — designed and named by a different customer each month. Even though Main Squeeze is not yet open, customers are submitting their blends and a name for the juice via social media.

One recent winner was invited to come make and try “21” (his jersey number), a blend of pomegranate, pineapple, blueberry, and ginger, before it was declared a winner.

Engaging the south side

Main Squeeze’s vision extends beyond juice. The partners are part of a fitness group that promotes healthy lifestyles. In February they issued a 40-mile run-walk challenge to the Springfield public — inviting anyone who wanted to join them to attempt to run 40 miles during the month.

“We did a blast on social media, [inviting] people who wanted to change their lifestyles or wanted to run with people,” says Taylor, who adds that almost 30 people participated and no one was held to the full 40 miles.

In March, the group upped the goal to 60 miles. “Anybody can achieve 60 miles” by starting with smaller goals, Williams says. “If you did one mile in February, come out and do five miles.”

But most of all, the partners of Main Squeeze want to promote healthier food options on the south side of Springfield. “We’re all selfless people — we’re happy when everybody else is happy,” Taylor says. “That’s our satisfaction.”
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