Blenz Bowls, a Miami-inspired smoothie bowl food truck and cafe concept founded at the University of Alabama, rolled on to the University of Mississippi campus this semester, the first of many proposed Southeastern Conference expansions for the business.
The smoothie spot, which was founded by Alabama graduates Riley Voce and Zach Rogers in 2018, has its sights set on a complex market: on-campus dining.
“We identified pretty early on that college campuses are our market,” Voce said. “It’s very untapped. There’s a huge barrier to entry; it’s hard to get on campus.”
Aramark, a multinational food contractor that supplies food to a variety of education, healthcare, business and carceral clients — including the Mississippi Department of Corrections — holds exclusive power over dining options at the university, making it difficult for independent vendors to break onto the on-campus roster.
According to a report from Mississippi Today, the lucrative exclusivity agreement between UM and the contractor has seen the university send $117 million over the past five years directly to Aramark, who in return awarded the university nearly $10 million in commissions.
Despite complex legal and financial barriers posed by the subcontracting model inherent at Aramark-contracted institutions, Voce says Blenz Bowls was uniquely positioned for a more painless expansion onto UM’s on-campus dining scene because of its success and experience at the University of Alabama.
“It helps to have started at the University of Alabama,” Voce said. “We’ve got two trucks there, so we’ve proven we’re not just young guys. We’re trying to show people we’re not just young bucks messing around. We’ve got a viable business, and we’ve got something students can get excited about.”
Local Oxford food trucks have been unable to find the same footing with the contractor.
When a group of local food truck owners attempted to strike a deal with Aramark in 2015, John Ferguson, owner of Fergndan’s Pizza Café, said the contractor offered food trucks an “absolutely ludicrous” deal.
Ferguson says Aramark told Jake Sessums, owner of the now-defunct YoknapaTaco taco truck, local food trucks were welcome to roll on to campus so long as they were able to give 42% of their earnings to the contractor.
“We have to pay them for the privilege to be there, so the costs get so exorbitant that we can’t afford to cover our costs,” Ferguson said. “It’s so cost prohibitive to be there.”
Ferguson said that the deal didn’t offer his business nearly enough value to offset its costs.
“I’ve got better things to do with my time than work for somebody else,” Ferguson said. “That’s why I’m in business. I don’t want to work for somebody else.”
Blenz Bowls’s experience at Alabama, as well as its unique business model, helped the owners to reach a more amicable deal with the contractor. Still, Voce says that it took Blenz Bowls years of persistence to earn their spot on campus.
“The first email we ever sent to Ole Miss was in late 2018, maybe early 2019,” Voce said. “It wasn’t until the summer of 2020 before we actually started having phone calls with Aramark here and the people we needed to talk to to get on campus.”
Currently, the smoothie company operates out of two locations on campus. The first is the truck, which rotates to different locations throughout the week. The second is a café in Weir Hall, a space that has served as home to several pop-up dining locations over the last few years.
“After meeting with the Aramark team and them getting to know us and seeing our product, they basically put their faith and trust in us,” Voce said. “We jumped on that opportunity as quick as they offered it, basically,” he said of the offer to open a second location in Weir Hall.
Although Blenz Bowls is sub-contracted through Aramark, the small scale of the business means that Voce and Rogers are able to be more hands-on with their employees, building student development into their business model.
“We try to give opportunities for college students to jump in,” Voce said. “We hire pretty much only college students, then give them opportunities to become managers and then potentially operators of a location that have responsibility of the day-to-day.”
Gia Osso, a senior marketing major and new employee at Blenz Bowls, says she has thoroughly enjoyed her time with the company.
“It’s really fun. The truck just has a really good energy to it,” Osso said. “They’re very flexible on hours because there’s a lot of people that can fill them.”
Overall, Voce says that what really makes Blenz Bowls distinct from the competition is their commitment to a positive campus and employee culture.
“We push positivity, good vibes, being a good human, and we hope someday somebody sees something different about us,” Voce said. “We’re more than a smoothie company. When you come to the store, we want you to go away feeling good about your day, feeling good about yourself.”