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Entrepreneurs banking on smoothies

Why are there hot dog stands but not bologna stands?

To Dan Buckstaff, the question is more than academic. He and a number of other entrepreneurs are gambling that large fast-food chains can be built on the latest craze: the smoothie.

Smoothies, which are whipped-up conglomerations of fruit, juice, yogurt and ice, seem to be showing up everywhere. There's Planet Smoothie, Tropical Smoothie and Smoothie King. Ben & Jerry's makes a frozen smoothie. Wal-Mart sells a smoothie in a bottle. Even the House of Representatives' food court has a smoothie stand, one of Buckstaff's Frozen Fusions.

If Buckstaff and the others are right, the smoothie is no fad, but rather a groundbreaking beverage as certain to last as Coca-Cola.

Is this possible?

Well, America certainly seems to be mad about smoothies. Retail sales have jumped to more than $500-million a year from virtually nothing five years ago. One San Francisco seller, Jamba Juice, has grown to 250 outlets and has snapped up a smaller player. Smoothie King Franchises Inc., based in Kenner, La., has 204 outlets in 20 states.

Unlike Coca-Cola or Dove Bars, smoothies aren't the result of a manufacturing or laboratory innovation. Anyone who ever tossed fruit, juice and ice into a blender could call himself a creator.

In fact, although the term "smoothie" dates back decades, nobody seems to know who coined it. Orange Julius, based in Minneapolis, has sold its smoothielike juice concoctions since the 1920s. But it wasn't until the early 1990s that the chain, now controlled by Omaha investing sage Warren Buffett, started calling one of its drinks a smoothie.

Smoothies face at least one problem: Any restaurant with a blender can add them to the menu. At Chicago's Northwestern Station, railway commuters can buy smoothies from five counters at the food court.

But Stephen Kuhnau, Smoothie King founder and chairman, believes in the future of dedicated smoothie stands. "It's not a fad. It's an ever-growing way of life for people to change and watch what the hell they're doing to themselves," Kuhnau, 51, said. "We really need to clean our diets up."

Kuhnau says he began whipping up fruit-based drinks at home 25 years ago to combat allergies. Eventually, he began selling the concoctions _ "Muscle Punch" was one bestseller _ at a health food store. After customers who tried to replicate the drinks at home said his tasted better, Kuhnau got into the business full time. Today, he said, Smoothie King fields several hundred calls monthly from people interested in becoming franchisees.

Although some Smoothie King outlets sell energy bars, they don't augment their menus with sandwiches and salads, as some of their competitors do. Rivals offering a multitude of products and relying on inexperienced help "hurt the industry with so many bad-tasting smoothies," Kuhnau said.

Some people in the food industry predict one or two major chains will come to dominate the smoothie market. Others think smoothies are destined to join the gallery of food fads that couldn't sustain even one national chain, including muffins and frankfurters on a stick.

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