Rewind back to this past April. We had recently made the decision to officially stay put back in Winston-Salem. After years of moving and searching, we felt a sense of calm in making the decision to return to the place we call home. We felt optimistic about bringing what we had learned back here, to this community, and contributing to this place in our own way.
It was spring, my favorite time of renewal, and we were taking in the sights, sounds and early season flavors at The Cobblestone Farmers Market. We ran into our friend Shane. His sister recently started this “awesome little juice company”, he had said. We met her, caught up for a bit, tried out some pretty incredible flavors, then they sent us home with samples and that was that.
Fast forward to today; it’s nearing the end of August. The delicate blooms of spring are long gone and sticky humidity fills the air. It is late summer and it feels like with a blink of an eye four months have passed.
But no one has felt the whirlwind of these past two seasons quite like Lonnie Atkinson. In four short months her “awesome little juice business” has captured the attention of what seems like the entire city and she now finds her company, Village Juice, on the fast track for homegrown success.
Before there was Village Juice, with its clever branding and addictive flavors, there was just Lonnie with an interest in food as medicine on her own quest to heal some digestive issues in a natural way. She had recently graduated from The Savannah College of Art & Design with a degree in photography and headed to California to begin her career. There the southern fried girl was exposed to a new way of eating and treating one’s body. “Before I was eating alot of protein bars, things marketed as healthy, but realized it really was iffy food.” she shares.
There she gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for real food. It was then that she fell in love with juicing, particularly cold-pressed. When you juice, you are extracting water and essential nutrients from fruits and vegetables. The fiber is discarded and this allows the body to absorb those wonderful nutrients more quickly. “Cold-pressed” is a process that does not produce the amount of heat as other processes therefore preserving the enzymes and nutrients, essentially offering superior nutritional value. Cold-pressing also requires thousands of pounds of expensive pressure to squeeze every last bit of goodness out of the ingredients.
She found herself diving in further into the world of raw vegan and with time she said that she “had never felt so good. It is incredible how food can drastically change the way you look and feel.” Inspired, she read book after book on the subject and asked a ton of questions to those in the know. Her own positive experience inspired her to share what she had learned with others. “I would talk to my parents on the phone trying to encourage them to try to change the way they eat.” She said they would humor her by listening but knew that at the time they did not really take too much to heart.
That is until her mom, an oncology nurse, had a routine scan and a small lump was detected. It was cancer and based on her own experience in the oncology field knew that she didn’t want to take any “wait and see” chances; she wanted that lump out.
“She called and asked me if I thought what I had been telling her about could help her. I said YES!” Lonnie boarded a plane back to North Carolina to help her mother reset her system in hopes of strengthening her body to help it naturally recover on its own.
“It wasn’t easy; we put her on a strict raw vegan diet. My dad and I did it with her, and I have to say it was really hard.” But she saw immediate results. Her mom’s cholesterol dropped 100 points and she lost 10 pounds in three short weeks. She came out of surgery feeling good and strong. “The physicians were shocked by how quickly she recovered.” It’s hard to deny it wasn’t due in part to what she consumed.
Lonnie returned to California shortly thereafter with a renewed passion and quickly realized she was ready for a change. So she returned to Winston-Salem to recollect for a bit.
It was then, in 2010, that she first started putting the wheels in motion for Village Juice. She had a name and worked on developing a menu. “But I didn’t have any money,” she laughs. “And honestly I’m not even sure the timing would have been right to launch here then,” she adds. So she put the plan on hold and moved to New York City where she continued to stay connected working odd jobs in the raw food world in addition to her day job.
“Honestly I felt lost then.” She realized that what she was doing professionally and what she was passionate about personally were not inline. I think that most of us, at some point or another, can certainly relate. But she remembers still emailing with her friend Nathan about juicing and dreaming of opening a business during that time.
Then he came for a visit and encouraged her to “just come back with me”. She was ready so she did, they started dating, got married and “had some kids”. “Because we were friends, we knew that if we were going to date we were going all in,” she laughs.
It wasn’t until last year that together they really got serious about making this shared passion a reality. “I spent six months testing out and developing recipes using my Norwalk juicer,” she remembers. “I made alot of good juice and alot of bad juice!” She firmly believes that that time of incubation was invaluable as she now has a great collection of recipes that she can pull from to debut new options in the months to come.
Lonnie and Nathan reached out to good friends who became investors, purchased a commercial cold press juicer, worked with a branding company to nail down her concept and began. At first the vision was to open with a storefront but ultimately began with a delivery service instead. “It was me delivering door to door.”
She shares that they grew their customer base through word of mouth and really only used Facebook and Instagram to promote. Early on she set up a juice tasting at a Crossfit event and from that word started to spread. There was also outreach on the campus of Wake Forest University. “I wasn’t sure how well it would be received, but people really loved it.” And she has always said “if you don’t feel better from drinking the juice, bring it back.”
That was around the February-March timeframe – of this year. “My dad and I would be up until 3am producing.” Then her brother joined in to help with production and events. They purchased a branded juice trailer which is now parked at the Coffee Park on Reynolda Road.
Because of Village Juice’s popularity, she recently hired a kitchen manager, part time production staff and customer service folks to support events and help meet demand. They produce anywhere from 100 to 300 bottles a day, six days a week, using fresh raw, organic ingredients. Each bottle contains roughly two to four pounds of produce. They have also added a line of almond milks and raw food products to complement their assortment.
We talked a bit about the emotional toughness required to open your own business. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it is also the best,” she says with confidence.
She believes that if you truly follow your passion, success will follow. She’s grateful to finally experience that first-hand. “People can feel your energy and it’s contagious. ” She loves nothing more than to have customers thank her for helping them feel better or for educating them on the benefits of cold-pressed juice. “There is a huge educational component to this,” she says. She often helps clients identify which fruits, vegetables or herbs might help with issues from digestion to skin.
She is happy to be doing all of this here in Winston-Salem and to be a part of this underground growth that is taking place. “We have another big announcement in the coming weeks that we’re really excited about, more growth,” she says as we finish our chat. She gave me a few hints and I have to say it’s much needed here; it’s going to be pretty great.