Smoothie maker Jamba counts on Taiwan's thirst for fruit juice

TAIPEI - Roadside kiosks have sprung up across semi-tropical Taiwan to satisfy residents' obsession for freshly squeezed juice, and smoothie maker Jamba Inc wants in.

The California-based maker of health drinks aims to open its first outlet in Taipei as early as this summer, venturing into a highly fragmented market of mom-and-pop juice stores that have thrived for years.

Consumers typically spend a dollar each on plastic cups of watermelon juice, with prices doubling for more unusual flavours, such as avocado or cocktails of vegetables.

It is not clear how far Jamba Juice, with its focus on nutritious smoothies, will lure away loyal customers from juice stands located in places thronged by pedestrians.

"We're still looking into how to alter some recipes for Taiwanese tastes," said Jack Hsu, of Quan Hung Gourmet Company, Jamba's franchise partner, adding that the brand will inject premium appeal into the market, but has set no sales target yet.

"Taiwanese are used to more tropical flavors like papaya, but we estimate about 90 per cent of the recipes will be the same as the original."

Vendors are unfazed by prospects of Jamba's entry.

"We're a different style than they are," said Karen Wu, 37, owner of the Fruit Park juice stand in Taipei's bustling Songshan district, which sells as many as 200 cups of juice on a hot day. "They'll probably go more for the shopping-mall crowd."

It is cheaper and easier for vendors such as Wu to set up shop, essentially a stand and a blender, and relying on a steady supply of produce from nearby markets.

"Fruit Park is just me and my brother, so we're able to get by," Wu added.

Customers hanker for more variety than a few years ago, thanks to a proliferation of Western fast-food chains, which presents a challenge to vendors who buy local ingredients and are vulnerable to seasonal swings in availability.

Mangoes, for example, are impossible to find in winter. Berries are almost never grown in Taiwan, Wu said, so cranberries and blueberries have to be imported.

But no one, not even Jamba, can displace local flavours, said Joanna Chou, 26, a freelance translator and self-proclaimed juice connoisseur.

"There's room for anything American, but it won't ever replace the Taiwanese juice stands with their papaya milk smoothies," Chou said. "It's the taste of childhood memories."