Juice cafe with locally grown salad bar coming to downtown; Lawrence startup pitching Uber-like app for restaurants; update on rooftop dining

The former location of the TCBY frozen yogurt shop, 845 Massachusetts St., sits empty on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

Maybe ramen noodles are the ultimate energy food, although that reopens the mystery about why I overslept for so many college classes. Regardless, the owners of Lawrence’s popular Ramen Bowls restaurant have plenty of energy, as evidenced by two ambitious projects: A new downtown eatery, and a tech startup that hopes to bring an Uber-like vibe to a key part of the restaurant industry.

First, the new eatery. Shantel Grace, an owner of Ramen Bowls, has confirmed it has signed a deal to open Lucky Berry Juice Cafe in the downtown space formerly occupied by TCBY, near Ninth and Massachusetts.

Look for the cafe to have a variety of “cold-pressed” fruit and vegetable juices. But perhaps its truly unique offering will be an organic, locally grown salad bar.

“Our goal is definitely for the salad bar to be 100 percent locally grown, especially during the growing season,” said Grace, who acknowledged the bar likely will have to rely on some shipped-in produce during the winter.

In addition to the standard greens that come on a salad bar, the cafe plans to make some unique and fresh salad dressings with the juice that is pressed on site. Plus, Grace said the salad bar will feature some of the homemade ramen noodles that are made at Ramen Bowls. A few grab-and-go sushi dishes also will be available.

photo by: Nick Gerik

The former location of the TCBY frozen yogurt shop, 845 Massachusetts St., sits empty on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

The restaurant also is buying the frozen yogurt machines that were part of the TCBY shop. Plans calls for the machines to offer frozen fruit smoothies. In case that is not enough fruit for you, the cafe plans to bring a West Coast fruit trend to downtown: Acai bowls. The bowls are a combination of acai berries, and a host of other ingredients such as bananas, strawberries, local honey, Greek yogurt, fresh coconut or other combinations.

One other possible twist for the cafe is a liquor license that would allow for a few speciality cocktails that would be made with the fresh juices. Grace, though, said that part of the business won’t overtake the primary purpose of the shop.

“We really want to set ourselves up as an urban farm stand that sells fresh-pressed juice,” she said.

She said the business model also hopes to succeed by not only selling the complex juice blends that can be a bit pricey, but also by selling simple, affordable juices.

“One thing we hope to have on tap is O.J.,” she said. “We want fresh-pressed orange juice available for kids or other people anytime. I want families to be able to come in here and have an affordable salad bar and some juices that are $2 or less.”

Grace — who is partnering with her husband, Tim, and downtown entrepreneur Dalton Paley on the cafe — hopes to have the location open sometime in June.

• Next, the idea of an Uber-like service for the restaurant industry. No, I’m not talking about making the Uber driver take you through the Taco Bell drive-thru at all hours of the night.

The same trio that is opening the juice cafe also has teamed up to create a new tech startup, FoodDrinkHire, that recently was invited to make a pitch to angel investors at one of the country’s larger tech conferences.

The company is developing a mobile app that will allow restaurant owners and potential restaurant employees to connect. One part of the app will function like a traditional job-listing website, although it will specialize in restaurant jobs.

But the more innovative part of the app is an “instant hire” function. Here is a scenario: You own a restaurant, and the employee who washes the dishes doesn’t show up. You must have a dishwasher that night, so you post your predicament on FoodDrinkHire. In theory, there will be a pool of available dishwashers — just like there are a pool of available Uber drivers — who are ready to take a job at a moment’s notice.

Grace acknowledges that system won’t work for all types of restaurant jobs. You’re likely not going to hire a chef or even a server through that type of method. But dishwashers, hosts, delivery drivers, and some types of prep cooks all may be good possibilities.

The idea grew out of a problem that restaurants frequently have: High turnover and employees who quit with little to no notice. Grace said some studies have shown that 50 percent of the time a restaurant has at least one employee who has not shown up for a shift.

“Whether we do this project or somebody else does, the industry needs this idea to happen,” Grace said.

Grace said the company has developed a beta version of the app, but said the company now needs more programming expertise, funding, and assistance from tech experts. The company submitted its idea to the prestigious Collision Conference in New Orleans, which is an event that attracts several thousand tech investors, programmers and other industry leaders. The company was chosen to make a pitch at the conference, and is being paired up with a tech industry executive who will provide some guidance to the company, Grace said.

“We’re at the point where we need to raise money, we need to hire programmers, we need someone to help us through the process,” she said. “The mountains are huge. I don’t know how far we’ll get, but we wanted to give this idea a try. There’s a real need for it.”

• While we are talking about the folks from Ramen Bowls, you may remember that I reported in November that they had filed plans to add rooftop dining to their building at 125 E. 10th St. Well, that project is progressing, but slowly.

The plan to add a dining area and bar atop the Ramen Bowls restaurant has won the necessary City Hall approvals, Grace said. But the first round of construction bids to build the facility came in higher than expected. Several structural and safety improvements have to be completed before the city will allow a dining area on a roof.

Grace said Ramen Bowls and the building’s owner — a group led by Lawrence businessman Jeff Shmalberg — are re-examining the design and looking for changes that can be made to reduce the costs. Grace said she is still hopeful the project can proceed, but said it won’t be happening in the near term.

“In reality, it would be at least a year before we could do it,” she said.

photo by: Nick Krug

Ramen Bowls, at 125 E. 10th St., has filed plans with the city to expand its operation to incorporate rooftop dining.