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Bitch at Us: Jennifer Ngai

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Bitch Biz: JRINK and Bitches Who Brunch are partners. While this article was written independently by Bitches Who Brunch, we do receive compensation from the company.

Cori Sue and I have been business partners in Bitching for five years now. It’s been a journey, with plenty of ups and downs, celebrations and challenges. There is literally never a dull day. So when I hear about other female entrepreneurs that have partnered up and are simply killing it in business, I stop to take note.

Or in this case, take multiple notes—as I got the chance to spend a bit of time with JRINK’s Jennifer Ngai last week. The charming and whip-smart Ngai, along with her business partner Shizu Okusa, started JRINK just a few years ago. The brand, the shops, the delivery service, even the stylish glass juice bottles themselves, all convey an impossibly chic-and-healthy lifestyle. But it’s what’s inside that’s even more impressive. 

JRINK Co-Founders

Ngai and Okusa are pioneers in the crowded juice space, concocting mixes that incorporate the wildest and healthiest of ingredients, from activated charcoal to burdock root, and making each taste delightful. The healthy cocktails are delicious, and the branding and marketing make you want to live the life, JRINK in hand.

The growing business has three locations, and its fourth opens today inside the Xtend Barre studio on Blagden Alley in Shaw. Doors open at 8 a.m. today, and the first 50 customers get free JRINK (tell ’em we sent you!).

How did they reach such success in such a short amount of time? I asked the hard questions.

Let’s start from the beginning. How’d you get here?

I’m originally from California, and my business partner, Shizu, is from Vancouver. We both graduated with a business administration major. I graduated from UC Berkley’s Haas Program and then spent two years doing investment banking in Los Angeles. After, I worked at the World Bank doing private investments in South America, so I was traveling there about once a month, which was great!

About a year into the World Bank, I decided I wanted to start my own business. To me, venturing out on my own was probably the riskiest and scariest thing I could do at that time; but I also realized that it could be one of the most rewarding experiences. I was in a fortunate position to take that chance: I had a great business partner, idea, and market opportunity. So Shizu and I both left the World Bank at the end of 2013, and pursued JRINK full time.

How did you latch on to Shizu then?

I met her while we were both working at Goldman Sachs. I was in the LA office while she was in the New York office. We met in the summer of 2010 while we were training. We became fast friends and stayed in touch through our two years of finance. She left a little bit early and went to work at an organization called TechnoServe, and she was in Mozambique for about eight months doing development work, and she coincidentally ended up at the World Break shortly thereafter.

We were both there and decided to start JRINK together, as first a solution for ourselves because we were so busy, and then for the greater community. We took the jump together and haven’t looked back since.

Were you always into juices? Were you super healthy before? Or did this venture bring on a change in lifestyle?

It comes from a place of, what we like to call, the “fresh-pressed solution for life-pressed people.” When you’re busy spending 80 to 90 hours a week working and running around you don’t necessarily have time to be healthy or even eat meals or lunch. So for me, I started juicing when I was living back in LA because I literally wouldn’t have time. I’d drive to Whole Foods, pick a juice up really quickly and have about two a day. It was my promise to myself to attempt to stay healthy.

For Shizu, she spent some time in Bali, where she got her yoga license and was immersed in the raw food movement. Juicing became a part of her daily habits.

So when we came here to D.C., we noticed no one was really doing it that well. There were no juice places here; what is going on? And then when Shizu and I were thinking about what we could do, juicing just made sense—both of us had this affinity to health and there was an opportunity here. D.C. is the perfect market, with tons of individuals working hard, so we decided to give it a go.

Bitches Who Brunch had a very similar start. Cori Sue and I were fast friends, busy young professionals who started a business together. Tell me how it’s been for you guys as partners, friends and female entrepreneurs.

When it comes to partners, a lot of people ask, how are you and Shizu, how do you guys work? And I really do believe that I completely lucked out with a great partner, and I don’t think, hands down, that we’d be where we are today without each other.

It was nice that we had been friends before; we met in another lifetime of finance. I know that she’s extremely smart, and we just built this level of friendship and trust over the years, before we even decided to get into business, that I think has carried us to where we are today. That’s not to say that we don’t have differing opinions, because we totally do. But we have a system for working things out, and we totally trust each other.

We always have JRINK as our best interest and the promise of putting your best foot forward. That has been a saving grace. Very few people understand what you’re going through as a businessperson, let alone a businesswoman, so we’re able to share that experience and lift each other up. It’s a very rare opportunity.

In terms of what it’s like being female entrepreneurs, I believe it’s more about an individual’s attitude and mentality than it is about society’s prejudices. If you make male versus female an issue to you, it will become an issue. So we try to operate without bias.

However, we do recognize the reality of the situation, so it’s a balance. We look to other women to support us, and we’re all very big advocates of women and minorities in businesses—JRINK is more than 80 percent female and minority operated. We are very appreciative to all the women who have gone out of their way to help us, and we strive to continue to pay it forward. Our team is a big part of where we are today.

You guys are growing so quickly. I feel like you’re opening new shops every week. How are you scaling so fast in a smart way?

We have a couple of locations right now—we have the Dupont place that opened up a year ago. It was our first location and now we have a pop up on 14th that we’re relocating to Blagden Alley. And then we opened up another outlet in Penn Quarter. We call these shared concepts because they’re not fully built-out spaces of our own. This has afforded us the ability to execute quickly and efficiently. We take otherwise empty space and bring life into it.

So, Dupont for example, is a yoga studio, but they have about 600 square feet of space in the front; beautiful space that they don’t use. They approached us to do something and while it was upstairs, we figured the audience was captive enough it made economical sense—especially when you think about a normal brick and mortar store that takes about six to nine months, given permitting and construction.

The concepts that we have done so far, we can get them up and running in four to six weeks, and now its formulaic. I think for us it’s about building a community and going into different neighborhoods and kind of dipping our toes to see if there’s an appetite before we commit to a full store. But I do think it’s important to have at least two “real” stores where we do have the full build out and it’s a space to fortify the brand. That’s our next area of target.

These all play a part in our growth and scale: We have blends of outlets, we have an online platform where people can order for home or office delivery, which is within the Beltway right now but we want to eventually open it up to Northeast regional delivery. We wouldn’t necessarily put an outlet there, but I’m sure there are people who would love to have our juices around.

So smart! Tell me about the juices themselves. How you guys come up with the unique combinations and the whole philosophy behind the ingredients?

When Shizu and I first started we did a lot of diligence, and we always like to think of ourselves as our own customers. I think we’ve done well by that because that’s how we stay relevant. And you can see that with our social media. What I really love, and am so grateful for, is that people love taking pictures of our bottles and our juices and the colors. So that kind of helps us stay relevant and helps us continue to know what our customers want.

When we first started, because we knew D.C. was still in its infancy of cold-pressed juices, we kept to the more popular ingredients—kale, spinach, romaine, cucumber, lemon, beet, carrot, apple, orange. Very easy and approachable juices; then over time, we grew into the deeper greens and more unique ingredients, like ginger or chlorophyll, and now we even have activated charcoal and turmeric.

We work in a combination of us knowing what the customers want, getting feedback from them and also collaborating with nutritionists to come up with as effective of juices as we can. We try and find a balance of efficacy and approachability. I don’t want to introduce a line of juices with unapproachable ingredients where customers go “I have no idea what any of these ingredients are on this list” and that scares them off. We want them to come in and have a very easy, efficient answer to getting their fuel and energy for the day.

So that’s kind of how we think about what ingredients should go in there and what new ingredients we should include. And for us, from just a business perspective, why would anyone want to come into a juice shop if they could do it at home? If they can just buy ingredients and juice them at home there’s no reason for them to come into any of our stores. So it’s important for us to stay on top of that and give them a reason to come into the store.

Are there any restaurants in D.C. that have amazing juice menus? Or anywhere you go for brunch for instance that made you think “the juices here are awesome”?

You know, there isn’t. There are other small micro juiceries that are starting up, and then you have larger franchises that also have been trying to get into juices. Whole Foods, Protein Bar, Pret a Manger has juices but they’re all HPP’d. You can tell by looking at the date of expiry—if its longer than three to five days, it’s been processed using a new technology called “high pressure processing.”

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So where do you go for brunch?

I went to Doi Moi with Cori Sue a couple weeks ago, and that was really good. I usually go to Sixth Engine near Mount Vernon, that I really like, and then Kapnos is really good. I don’t have a brunch spot, but I love indulging for brunch or lunch and then stopping by JRINK to get a juice after.

So it’s almost like a dessert for you, it’s not a replacement for a meal, it’s adding to the meal.

Yes. So I find that when I’ve had a big meal—I love French toast and waffles and all that jazz—having something fresh to wash it down after makes me just feel so much better. Generally Monday through Friday I try not eating really heavy foods during lunch, because I can get hard-core food coma. Like if I have a burger, I don’t want to work after. But if I have a juice after, it kind of rejuvenates me and I’m ready to go. I like to chase my heavy meal down with the juice.

If you could gather a brunch group and it could be anyone in D.C. or out of D.C., who would you gather?

I would definitely have to say a collection of my friends in California and one group in particular. When I went to college I joined a business fraternity and, it’s a little nerdy, but it was great and I got really great friends out of it. You join by semester and the group that I joined with my semester, we are still really close friends.

They are by the funniest, most debacherous, loud people that I have ever met, but also some of the most intelligent, hard-working, loyal friends that I have. I don’t see them often. A couple of us are on the East Coast, a couple are in San Fran, a couple are in LA, and every time we have a major holiday we always make it a point to either do a trip or go home together or grab dinner or brunch together. Whenever I’m with them I can just talk and laugh for days.

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