In this series, The Gambit, Entrepreneur associate editor Hayden Field explores extraordinary risk, speaking with successful people about how they overcame unusual obstacles to found a company or switched industries entirely in a “career 180.”
On an island called Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand, Hayden Slater was attempting a 30-day juice cleanse.
It was August 2008, and he was staying in a tiny hut at an alternative health spa, surrounded by coconut groves, dense rainforest and white sand beaches. Since he was new to juice fasting, Slater’s original plan had been a five-day cleanse, but on the final day, stunned by his levels of energy and clarity, he decided to keep going. The cleanse meant drinking juice made from fruits and vegetables every few hours, and by day 14, he was counting the hours until the 30 days were up. But by the last week, he felt at peace, content. He remembers looking in the mirror and being surprised to see how bright the whites of his eyes appeared. At day 30, a part of him wanted to continue the journey.
From left: Carly de Castro, Hayden Slater and Hedi Gores, co-founders of Pressed Juicery.
Slater would go on to co-found Pressed Juicery, a cold-pressed juice company that pegs its projected revenue at more than $75 million for fiscal year 2019. Besides juice, it serves smoothies, flavored waters and frozen fruit soft-serve.
The cold-pressed juice market was worth an estimated $4.3 billion in 2017. By 2024, it’s projected to surpass $8 billion. But despite Pressed Juicery’s success in that market, CEO Hayden Slater experienced his share of setbacks — including a career 180, a health department shutdown and two run-ins with the FDA. Here’s his story.
Like any ‘80s kid born in Los Angeles, a young Slater grew up with fair weather alongside the film and TV industry and watching TGIF shows such as Full House. His parents’ friends — and his friends’ parents — were producers, directors and editors. He interned with Steve Tisch, the producer behind titles such as Forrest Gump and Risky Business.
Slater was a self-proclaimed “fast food junkie” for most of his childhood. He was the furthest thing from a yogi, so as a theater student at New York University, discovering that an introductory yoga class was a sophomore year requirement left him less than thrilled. “No college kid wants an 8 a.m. class,” he says.
That all changed when Slater’s yoga teacher walked into the room. He was struck by her beauty, her energy and the way she brought words he’d always heard in passing — yoga, chanting, macrobiotics — to life. Slater’s initial reluctance to take the class faded quickly and was replaced with inspiration. He would never forget his teacher’s most loyal sidekick: an ever-present thermos of green juice.
Slater began incorporating cold-pressed juice into his morning routines. He calls it the “catalyst” — the first real-life experience that opened his eyes to feeling healthier.
Fresh after graduating NYU, Slater landed a full-time gig at HBO, the network behind shows such as Sex and the City, Westworld and Game of Thrones.
But the industry’s trademark long hours — and tables full of free food via craft service — meant it wasn’t long before Slater fell back into old habits. “It was mind-blowing how quickly I had forgotten how eating clean made you feel,” he says. “Eating crappy became my norm again.”
He started off as an assistant to executive producer Cynthia Mort on the show Tell Me You Love Me, then started helping out in the writers’ room. After the show’s wrap, Slater bought a one-way ticket to travel southeast Asia.
Image credit: Hayden Slater
Slater planned to spend a few months traveling through Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, India and Japan, but he couldn’t have known embarking on the trip — and his subsequent juice cleanse — would change his life.
Returning to L.A. — and HBO — was an adjustment. Slater was filled with fear because, even if he hadn’t admitted it to himself yet, the industry seemed unattractive to him for the first time. The battle between creatives and executives drained him, and he could feel what he had loved about the industry — brainstorming ideas, building them out, filming, editing — “fizzing away quickly.” Those things were largely inextricable from the industry’s trademark “bullshit,” he says, and after what he’d discovered in his time away, he wasn’t even sure he cared about them anymore.
A light bulb went off in Slater’s mind, sparking his idea to take his newfound passion for health and pursue it professionally. He wasn’t sure how he’d accomplish it, so he started brainstorming and connecting the dots. Would he go into yoga? Create a spa retreat? Build some sort of all-encompassing health business?
After spending some time in the weeds, Slater gave himself some good advice. “Stop getting ahead of yourself, and focus on the one thing that had the biggest impact,” he remembers thinking. That was, without a doubt, cold-pressed juice.
With that realization came clarity — something Slater felt in every part of his body. He was in his mid-twenties with no spouse or dependents, so he told himself it was the best possible time to take the risk.
“Everyone from my parents to my boss at the time thought I was crazy,” he says. Slater remembers his father sitting across from him, saying, “A juice company? This is crazy. You’ve made such progress with this creative path. … Are you sure you want to do this?”
Slater had made up his mind. Various people in his life figured if they let him pursue a juice business, he’d soon realize it was a bust and come back to the “right” path.
In early 2009, Slater officially left HBO. He remembers his boss saying, in typical repartee, “I’ll see you in a couple months when it doesn’t work out.”
Within less than a year, Slater pitched his juice idea to two childhood friends and brought them on board. They both shared his passion about the final product, but they had different drives. The idea of masking nutrients in juice excited Hedi Gores, the mother of a then 4-year-old son. Carly de Castro, who had recently lost her mother to cancer, felt that if she’d discovered juicing sooner, it could have helped prolong her mother’s health — and perhaps even lead to recovery.
In 2010, drinking your fruits and vegetables wasn’t very trendy. In fact, the cold-pressed juice industry brought in more than $857 million that year, compared to a projected revenue of more than $2.1 billion by 2024, says Karan Chechi, research director at TechSci Research. At the time, Jamba Juice was one of the only companies peddling the health beverage on a wide scale, but they marketed their products relatively loudly (current smoothie names include “Mango-A-Go-Go,” “Strawberry Surf Rider” and “Razzmatazz”).
Slater wanted to try a different approach.
“Health and wellness can be a bit elitist,” he says, citing his experience growing up in L.A. He wanted to base his business on acceptance: the idea that there are no blanket “musts,” that everyone is at a different point in their journey and that — “as corny as it sounds,” he says — it’s important to listen to your body and pursue your own path.
Slater, de Castro and Gores had a vision of a juice company that took intimidation and elitism out of wellness and allowed the ingredients to tell the story. (Their products later would have simple names such as “Greens 1,” “Greens 2” and “Orange Turmeric Apple Lemon.”)
In April to May 2010, the three took the first step towards what would later become Pressed Juicery, pooling $30,000 each to launch the business. They bought a juice press, and Slater convinced a local cupcake shop to lend him their kitchen at night so he had a place to make juice. Almost every night, from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., he would be there.
Pressed Juicery’s first physical location was a 22 square-foot broom closet — yes, a broom closet — beneath a yoga studio in a central Brentwood shopping center. The team convinced the landlord to rent it out for $1,050 a month, and with a few tweaks — installing a Dutch door and a single refrigerator — it was ready to go.
Slater says the early days of the fledgling business were a constant rollercoaster, but the shop’s customer base was growing so quickly that there was little time to dwell on doubts. Without any sort of map or business plan, the team used their “ignorance,” as Slater calls it, to their favor, creating exactly what they as consumers would want and going about the process with a sort of magical blindness. “Part of me thinks that so much of our success was because none of us really had any experience,” he says.
Six months after Pressed Juicery officially launched, Slater would learn that lack of experience is a double-edged sword.
The Breaking Point
It was around 11 a.m. on a bright, sunny day when the health department came knocking.
Slater was still making juice at the cupcake shop, and the health department had shown up for a surprise inspection. When he saw the representative, he was almost excited. Now I can understand how these inspections work, he thought. Since the cupcake shop had a health permit, Slater had assumed Pressed Juicery was in the clear, too. He was wrong. The representative asked him if he had a permit, so he pointed to the one on the wall. “No, that permit is for the cupcake shop,” he remembers hearing.
The next thing he knew, the representative was essentially shutting down the operation. Slater’s burgeoning excitement came to a quick halt, and he remembers the “traumatic experience” was the first time he doubted himself.
An L.A. law firm recommended the young company close up shop — to be shut down by the health department that early is something it likely wouldn’t recover from. Slater’s reaction to the news? “Fear-filled.” But the team decided they’d worked too hard to give up at that point. Instead, they braced for a struggle.
The company was shut down for two weeks while he and his team scrambled to find a new location to manufacture juice. Slater hired a legal advisor and, after getting things up and running at the new venue, finally got the green light from the health department for the new location.
Slater remembers Pressed Juicery’s first day back as their strongest-ever day of sales. The team took it as a sign — not only that they’d been right to trust their instincts but also that they’d built something extraordinary.
But they weren’t out of the woods yet. The shutdown experience was “almost scarring,” Slater says. The founders vowed never to let it happen again. So Slater took, in his mind, the most logical next step: Request an inspection from the FDA. His intentions were good. He hoped the agency would take the fact that Pressed Juicery invited them in as a positive sign, inspect the operation, inform them of any issues and let Slater take the time to fix them. Unfortunately, the plan backfired. An FDA inspector spent two hours walking the juice facility in west L.A. and came to the conclusion she’d have to shut Pressed Juicery down.
The FDA requires businesses to have standard operating procedures (SOPs), or step-by-step instructions for every stage of manufacturing and preparing food and drink. For Pressed Juicery, that would mean clearly outlined processes for storing, unloading, preparing, cleansing and washing produce.
But Slater’s company didn’t have anything in writing.
The fledgling juice company had just bounced back from its health department horror, and Slater was taken aback. He pleaded with the inspector: “Instead of closing us, will you work with us?” The agency agreed to give them a window of time to make everything compliant with regulations.
Slater and his team hired FDA consultants to rework their manufacturing process. “That was the one area where we really were clueless,” Slater says. The company created its SOPs and conducted the necessary validation studies. In Pressed Juicery’s case, that meant tests with a few different juices to prove its produce cleansing process eliminated any harmful bacteria.
Slater also knew his strengths were creativity and big-picture leadership rather than finance and operations, so he hired a new chief operations officer with retail experience, as well as a new head of manufacturing with previous juice industry experience at Odwalla. The latter spearheaded a new manufacturing process that, according to Slater, cut Pressed Juicery’s manufacturing costs roughly in half.
Before, the company made juice via a “batch” method — e.g., every step of the process was separated out in batches. That meant one team washed the produce, another team pressed it to extract the juice and yet another mixed it. The labor, time and resources that went into switching between different teams and machines made the manufacturing process more complicated and expensive. But Slater’s recently hired head of manufacturing spearheaded a new “continuous flow” process, eliminating some steps and making it almost fully automated. After putting in new machines — some of which hadn’t even been used in food manufacturing before, according to Slater — he remembers the manufacturing head joking that if someone entered the facility when it wasn’t producing juice, they would have no idea what was created there.
In 2014, after about a year and a half of dealing with the health department and the FDA, Pressed Juicery could finally move forward.
The Next Step
Pressed Juicery aims to corner the cold-pressed juice market with an approach centered on accessibility (read: not intimidating) and affordability (read: not the price of an entire meal).
“To those who can afford a $12, 100 percent organic, glass bottled juice, there are amazing options out there,” Slater says. “For rest of the world, we want to be able to become a product that has integrity, high quality and [accessibility].”
Today, the chain has 70 stores nationwide and has plans to expand into international markets, namely Japan and South Korea. Beyond juice, the company now offers coffee, smoothies and plant-based soft-serve.
To keep in line with Slater’s goal to make nutrition accessible for the masses, Pressed Juicery has implemented a price decrease for the first time in the brand’s history. One juice used to cost between $6.50 and $8, but the company has since slashed the price tag to $5 — a decrease of between about 25 and 40 percent.
“Starbucks has trained the world that $5 is an acceptable price for beverages,” Slater says, “so we meet that.”