Features

The Cult of Vitamix


The Cult of Vitamix

Photograph by David Brandon Geeting for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Vitamix 5200 high-performance blender is squat, black, and rubberized, loud as a leaf blower and powerful enough to pulverize a steer. Its 2-horsepower engine approaches the strength of a lawn mower. At 11 pounds, it’s as heavy as a cannonball. The weight and a sheath of thick thermoset plastic damp vibrations and keep the blender from flying off the counter. A Vitamix blender is a symphony of precision engineering, with motor, container, and blades working in powerful harmony. The container is curved at the bottom to create a vortex that pulls food through the blades, which are surprisingly dull. That’s because a Vitamix doesn’t chop or slice, as we imagine blenders do. Instead, the angled blades, which travel at speeds up to 240 miles per hour, simply obliterate whatever is inside. The process creates enough friction to boil soup. “They are essentially bashing the materials to death,” says Greg Moores, the company’s vice president for engineering, “breaking down the cell walls to emulsify them at a molecular level. Theoretically, this is healthier for you because it emulsifies plant matter more than your teeth can by chewing it.” The 5200, which retails for $449, is actually one of the cheaper models. All told, Vitamix expects to sell 1.4 million blenders this year.

David Brandon Geeting for Bloomberg BusinessweekYou may already have encountered a Vitamix. Headsetted pitchmen hawk them at Costco Wholesale (COST). Contestants on Iron Chef whip up soups and sauces with them. When Ryan Seacrest visited Today in September, he brought one along as a gift for the cast and had them try his signature smoothie recipe, Brazilian Thunder. (It’s delicious.) Vitamixes are colonizing the kitchens of upscale professionals everywhere and taking on totemic status. “They’ve become an icon for healthy eating,” says Linda Petursdottir, a nutritionist and wellness coach in Bethesda, Md., who teaches a Vitamix cooking class. “A Vitamix is the fad symbol of your commitment to nutrition and healthy living.” Luxury blenders have gone viral in the way that Tupperware (TUP) once did—through word of mouth, mainly among harried moms and working women, although men are buying them, too. Petursdottir will typically teach her class in the home of a client who has invited her friends, who in turn tell their friends, and the circle widens. This is a reliable pattern because something about owning a Vitamix breeds an impulse to evangelize about it.

My first encounter came when a friend of my wife’s lugged her Vitamix to our house for a book club with a liter of Jose Cuervo and a bag of fruits and vegetables, then proceeded to make frozen margaritas and a soup that even picky kids would eat. Everyone cooed. One woman confessed she had tried to talk her husband into taking theirs on vacation. At Whole Foods Market (WFM) a few days later, a demonstrator whipped up startlingly delicious kale-banana-apple smoothies. It occurred to me that I had reached the age when taking practical steps toward longevity made sense, and here was a seemingly painless way to do so. Ultimately, though, it was the approach of my wife’s birthday, not middle age, that drove my decision to buy one.

Vitamix is an unusual company that operated in quiet anonymity for nearly a century. Today it’s growing like a startup, thanks to shrewd marketing and a confluence of trends that includes the rise of organic foods, a wave of adventurous cooking shows, and the mania for juicing and smoothies. The stampeding yuppie army behind these trends drove up sales revenue by 52 percent last year, the company reports. This has awakened not just domestic competitors such as Waring Products and Omega but also Chinese and Australian brands such as Ninja and Omni Blend, touching off a kind of blender arms race to cash in on the Great American Smoothie Boom.
 
 
In 2013, Vitamix opened a 175,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in a wooded industrial park just outside Cleveland. On the day I visited in late November, the area around the factory was being torn apart by bulldozers to accommodate more parking for workers, whose cars filled the surrounding lot and spilled out into the street. Brad Johnson, a big, bluff Canuck who is the operations manager, led me on a tour of the gargantuan space. A large banner hanging over an assembly line declared: “The Vitamix is a blender like a predator drone is a slingshot.”

“We’ve got eight main production lines that can operate in three shifts, 24/5,” Johnson said, motioning to a line of workers assembling blade housings as forklifts whizzed past. “Each produces 450 to 700 blenders per shift, or about 6,000 to 7,000 per day.” Additional lines operate at headquarters in Olmsted Township, a few miles away.

Vitamix makes a variety of models that range from expensive (TurboBlend Two Speed: $399) to superexpensive (Professional Series 750: $689) and are now sold in 100 countries. In the past two years, its workforce has nearly tripled, to 826 employees, in order to keep up with demand. Not only is Vitamix a top-selling item at high-end consumer kitchen stores such as Williams-Sonoma (WSM), but its corporate clients, which include Starbucks (SBUX), McDonald’s (MCD), and Jamba Juice (JMBA), are increasing their orders as they scramble to satisfy America’s thirst for smoothies. “There has to be a blender in the kitchen,” says Johnson. “Why not ours?”

Photographs by David Brandon Geeting for Bloomberg Businessweek

As you approach Vitamix’s headquarters, the first thing you see is a log cabin that housed the company after it was founded in 1921 by a traveling can-opener salesman named William Grover “Papa” Barnard. Company lore holds that he first encountered a newfangled contraption called a blender at the 1937 Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland and was seized by its possibilities. A man ahead of his time, Barnard was an ardent exponent of the benefits of healthy living who named his company the Natural Food Institute and preached the gospel of “whole-food nutrition” and “health via the carrot.” That same year, he developed his own blender, the “Vita-Mix.”

Barnard’s blender was expensive to produce. It cost $11.95 in 1937, about $209 in today’s dollars. It took some fast talking to convince customers that turning solid foods into liquids was a good idea. But Barnard was a skilled salesman and found that people were more likely to buy his blender if they could see it demonstrated. So one evening in 1949, he donned a pinstriped, double-breasted suit and headed to the downtown Cleveland studios of WEWS, where he showed off the “home miracles of the Vita-Mix machine” on live television in what became the first infomercial.

Today, Barnard would seem like an unlikely pitchman. He was old and doughy and had a combover. He hectored his audience. “Without health, you’re a miserable failure!” he told them. “You’ll lose your wealth, you’ll lose your job, you’ll lose your income, and you’ll lose your life!” But his pitch worked, and the phones, which he answered himself, started ringing. Blenders became Barnard’s main product and his passion. As his company grew, it remained in Olmsted Township and in the family. In 1955, Barnard’s son, Bill, took over and rechristened the company Vitamix Corp. Bill was succeeded by his son Grover, who passed the baton to his brother John. Jodi Berg, the company’s fifth chief executive officer, is Barnard’s great-granddaughter.

The sales pitch and the product are essentially unchanged. “The reason we brought the blender into our product mix way back in ’37 was to use as a tool for people to have a successful, healthy lifestyle,” says Berg, who remembers attending family reunions at company headquarters as a child. “As you can imagine, we endured decades of the whole world going through phases of convenience, fast food, pieces and parts, extract the nutrients and give it to me in a pill, stick it in my cereal, the Atkins diet, and all the rest. But we never lost sight of that vision of helping people eat healthier.”

Berg, who took over in 2009 and has overseen the massive expansion, routinely fields inquiries from suitors interested in buying the company. But she says Vitamix, which is owned by family shareholders, won’t consider selling or moving its manufacturing operations overseas. Given its all-American success story and location in the pivotal swing state of Ohio, it’s a miracle Vitamix isn’t besieged during election years with presidential candidates. That’s fine with Berg. While taking care to note that the White House kitchen uses a Vitamix, Berg says, “The only politician I want to talk to is Michelle Obama.”

The decades of focusing on health, even as most Americans were not, produced some lean years and curious choices. During the ’70s and ’80s, Vitamix experimented with selling exercise bikes, trampolines, and juicers. Ads from this period suggest its blenders were marketed mainly in fringe publications to mystical, earth-worshiping hippies and New Age seekers of life extension techniques.

But times change. Introduced to green smoothies by a cancer patient she met in Taiwan in the late ’90s, Berg brought the concept back to the U.S. At around the same time, authors such as Victoria Boutenko began promoting the benefits of raw food and smoothies as a complement or alternative to traditional medicine for a host of common ailments. Genetically modified foods were coming under suspicion. “We started realizing about 10 years ago that the world was starting to get it,” says Berg. “We didn’t face such a steep learning curve anymore in teaching people about food and the impact it has on their body.”

In 2005, Iron Chef America premiered on the Food Network, pitting such superstars as Mario Batali and Bobby Flay against each other in high-pressure competition. One competitor, Michael Symon, the James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef behind Cleveland’s Lola Bistro, brought his Vitamix in a suitcase. The blenders became a featured accoutrement on the show. Just as golfers lust after Tiger Woods’s Nike (NKE) clubs, amateur chefs—and plenty of professionals—decided they needed to own a Vitamix. “Chefs are rock stars,” says Anthony Ciepiel, the company’s chief operating officer. “And Vitamix has a tremendous chef following.” Of the annual list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants put out by mineral water bottler San Pellegrino, Ciepiel claims Vitamixes can be found in at least 45. Thousands more restaurants use them. When Vitamix employees go out to lunch, they like to ask their server if the restaurant has a Vitamix in the kitchen. It usually does. Often the server has one at home, too.

“We never gave up,” Berg says. “We were doing research, publications, explaining how a high-performance blender can improve your health. The Internet had a big impact. We, as an organization, have stayed with our same vision, but all these different trends have made it easier for people to realize how big an impact a Vitamix can have.”
 
 
Even as the culture embraced clean eating and fancy cooking, Vitamix had to get people to spend a lot of money on a high-end version of a machine that can be found in department stores for about $20. No longer the dazzling object from the future that Barnard encountered at the Great Lakes Expo, a blender is a routine appliance. To make the sale, says Ciepiel, “you have to demonstrate the value proposition by showing what a Vitamix can do.” So the company has drawn on many of the same methods as its founder did.

David Brandon Geeting for Bloomberg Businessweek

In industry jargon, a Vitamix smoothie has a “silkier mouthfeel” and “thinner viscosity” than you’re likely to experience elsewhere. Those little bits of ice that used to get stuck in the straw of your Frappuccino? They don’t anymore, because Vitamix designed a special blender for Starbucks. The trouble is, you’re unlikely to realize the superior “flavor experience” available from a high-performance blender unless a friend lugs one to your house for a book club or someone at Whole Foods thrusts a smoothie into your hand. To that end, Vitamix retains more than 500 pitchmen who blanket home shows, culinary festivals, wholesale clubs, and kitchen expos. The company seeks out buoyant, upbeat people and trains them for days. “They’re taught a whole philosophy,” Ciepiel explains, “an indoctrination into the company and how to share our value proposition.” Then they serve an apprenticeship. When they’re ready, they hit the road, spending 10 or 12 hours a day on their feet at wholesale clubs. “They usually set us up someplace visible in the front of the store with a microphone,” says Jonathan Cochran, aka the “Blender Dude,” who sold Vitamixes up and down the East Coast until the smoothie boom allowed him to start an online business. “No one wants to be the first person to approach me, because they don’t want to be first one I sell to. But they’ll rush right up to try a smoothie.”

If a demonstrator does well, the store will book him for a repeat visit. Some demonstrators share their cell phone number and develop loyal followers who show up each time they come to town, as if they were the Eagles. Cochran did so well that he settled down in Raleigh, N.C., and became the proprietor of the popular site blenderdude.com. He says he sells $100,000 worth of Vitamix blenders every month.

To keep them on their toes, Vitamix demonstrators are “mystery shopped” each quarter and given a report card. Last year, Ciepiel says, the company’s representatives conducted 4 million demonstrations. Vitamix has become one of Costco’s largest purchaser of fruits and vegetables, so vast is the ocean of smoothies its representatives churn out for gawking onlookers.

When Ciepiel joined Vitamix from a paint and stain company six years ago, he thought the blender maker could sell a lot more by getting Vitamixes in front of more people who could afford them, then convincing those people that the blenders were worth the price. So Vitamix did two things. First, it settled on five chains that it thought could best reach affluent, health-conscious people inclined toward serious cooking: Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, Sur La Table, Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY), and Costco. Then it persuaded consumers to buy Vitamixes by getting those stores to carry a more expensive range of blenders than they had before.

“People come in thinking they want to buy a low-priced blender,” says Ciepiel, “but then get there and say, ‘Oh, look at all my choices.’ They start to compare, and then they move up the price continuum.” In other words, when the costliest blender is suddenly $689, a $529 model can seem reasonable by comparison. This strategy turned out well for the stores and, of course, for Vitamix. “When retailers carried premium and superpremium blenders,” he says, “they found that customer demand was there to meet them, and they garnered a greater market share than stores that didn’t carry them.” This year, Vitamix expanded into Target (TGT). “It has a wonderful market segment of mothers who are concerned about feeding their children well,” Ciepiel says.

To maintain its cachet, Vitamix donates its products to the Culinary Institute of America to hook young chefs early on and places blenders in movies and television shows such as ABC’s (DIS) Trophy Wife and Modern Family. To keep abreast of fickle consumer tastes, Ciepiel has developed a “Smoothie Tracker” survey that monitors a sample of 1,000 people. “Every month,” he says, “we talk to them about what they buy, where they buy it, and what they make, and also whether their smoothie consumption was in-home or away from the home.” Right now, the hot trend in blending is “whole-fruit” juicing. “The pith, the pulp, the fiber—you garner all that nutritional benefit when you consume the whole fruit,” says Ciepiel. It’s the same pitch Papa Barnard made in his infomercial.

The business of high-end blenders is surprisingly cutthroat. Last year a federal appeals court upheld a judgment against Vitamix for copying competitor Blendtec’s patented five-sided container. Blendtec’s founder, Tom Dickson, is also the impresario behind the marketing campaign Will It Blend?, which maintains a website where he puts a bizarre assortment of things—iPhones, pool cues, Justin Bieber action figures—into a Blendtec to see what will happen. Not content with his $24 million judgment, Dickson stuffed pieces of a Vitamix into his Blendtec and ground them into rubberized dust.

Recently, several makers of traditional, or “household,” blenders have introduced high-performance lines to capture a share of this growing market. Oster offers the Versa, Hamilton Beach the Tempest. Consumer Reports recently rated the Chinese brand Ninja as highly as Vitamix, even though models sell for under $100. Cochran, the Blender Dude, is working with an Australian brand, Optimum, that expects to enter the U.S. next year. “The word is out on high-performance blenders,” he says. “But there is still a wide-open market space up for grabs between the everyday run-of-the-mill blenders and the Vitamix.”

Surveying the competition, Ciepiel projects the serene confidence that comes with having the largest dollar share of this multibillion-dollar market. He professes not to be worried. Two big demographic trends are running in his favor. The first is the nutritional habits of the young. “Millennials are more concerned about health than Gen Xers or boomers,” he says. “And they can’t even afford our blenders yet!” The second and larger trend involves people who not only can afford Vitamix blenders but also have already demonstrated a propensity to buy them: guys like me.
 
 
We all imagine ourselves to be autonomous actors in our own lives, immune to corporate influence. So it was mildly disconcerting to learn that I embody basically every consumer habit characteristic of my age, gender, and social class, including my choice of a blender. Part of Ciepiel’s plan six years ago was to broaden Vitamix’s appeal beyond the consumer segment the company calls “nutritional answers” (the hippies and life-extension fanatics) to a much bigger one it has dubbed “family, food, and health.” This prosperous group encompasses foodies, helicopter parents, and health-obsessed professionals who drink chai, do CrossFit, and shop at Whole Foods. What each of these subgroups has in common is that it’s growing—and its growth is being driven by men.

When Papa Barnard set out to hawk his miracle machine 75 years ago, the kitchen was regarded as a place for women, but that has changed. Today, men are just as likely to watch Iron Chef and to want to master complicated cuisines. They’re also taking a more active role in parenting, giving rise to a breed of doting dads as fussy about their kids’ diets as any mom. As a result, men now make up nearly 40 percent of Vitamix buyers.

Berg suggests the machine itself is a vital part of the allure, saying, “We’re seeing a shift in the number of men who buy the Vitamix because of the power and the performance.” The implication is that a Vitamix is like a Mustang for your kitchen. Even if that sounds like a stretch, rhapsodizing about its speed, power, and destructive capacity helps quell any worry that being really into your blender is emasculating and therefore works as a marketing plus.

Even so, Berg’s flattering description of male enterprise and parental aplomb doesn’t fully explain the Vitamix phenomenon. The appeal of owning a Vitamix to those of us who fall short of being Gourmet Super Dads is that it’s the easiest step you can take toward a healthier lifestyle that registers tangible, positive results. For all its appeal to celebrity chefs and extreme athletes, a Vitamix is tailor-made for the semi-enlightened male vaguely inclined toward better nutrition yet still rooted in his natural state of couch-bound torpor.

Men are creatures of habit. Cramming fruit into a blender instead of grabbing a Coke is a plausible goal—it doesn’t require sweat or undue exertion or getting up early in the morning for some kind of humiliating class. It’s the perfect life hack. While nobody at Vitamix emphasizes this, a whole universe has sprung up to support the hapless male user. The Web abounds with recipes and video clips demonstrating all sorts of easy concoctions. If your wife’s not looking, YouTube’s (GOOG) bikini-clad Blender Babes will teach you how to whip up all kinds of smoothies. A Vitamix is essentially failproof; with a banana or a splash of apple cider, even an old shoe could be made delicious. The seductive ease of liquefied foods eventually makes ordinary methods of food preparation seem as burdensome and archaic as churning your own butter. But if you decide to buy a Vitamix, it can do that for you, too.

Green_190
Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

Tim Cook's Reboot
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW

Companies Mentioned

  • COST
    (Costco Wholesale Corp)
    • $126.5 USD
    • 0.02
    • 0.02%
  • TUP
    (Tupperware Brands Corp)
    • $72.55 USD
    • -0.69
    • -0.95%
Market data is delayed at least 15 minutes.
 
blog comments powered by Disqus