Smooth operators out to Crussh the competition

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It is a High Street battle that will pitch the Zen Boost against Love Juice and the Deep Detoxifier against the Green Tea Pineapple Zen. In a contemporary equivalent of the 1990s coffee bar showdowns, an Australian juice bar chain which has taken the Asia-Pacific region by storm is moving in on a UK market already worth more than £100m and doubling every year.

The leading UK operator of "smoothie" bars opened its 14th branch, in the Strand, last week. The company, Crussh, predicts it and others will have dislodged coffee bars from their position on the high street within 15 years. But the arrival of the Australian company Boost Juice - which has just announced it will open a Manchester outlet later this year with more to follow in London - means Crussh will not have the market to itself.

Boost's own extraordinary development began in a garage in Melbourne, Australia, where Janine Allis began blending smoothies (for the uninitiated: drinks made with natural fruits, juices and dairy products, sometimes partly frozen). On a visit to California, she then hit upon the idea of setting up smoothie bars, first in Adelaide in May 2000 and eventually across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. The franchise - known by its orange, green and yellow shopfronts - now has 180 sites offering smoothies, juice cocktails and "medicinal" drinks laced with camomile, passion flower and lemon balm.

In Manchester, Ms Allis has stumbled upon a franchisee with an impressive track record: Richard O'Sullivan, from Bury, who sold his Millies Cookies firm to the catering giant Compass for £24m in December 2003. The £5m asking price provides an idea of the brand's worth. "I'll open 10 and see where it goes from there," said Mr O'Sullivan. "We will run the business from the North-west and build it up, like we did with Millies."

The success of Britain's smoothie producers provides grounds for considerable optimism. Innocent, founded by three entrepreneurs in 1998, now sells a million smoothies a week, controls 56 per cent of the UK smoothie market and expects its £37m sales to double this year.

Smoothies are comfortably the fastest growing sector in the soft drinks market: the research company IRI recently found that they were growing at a rate of 130 per cent, compared with growth of 20 per cent for chilled juices. But behind the soaring smoothie sales, nutritionists warn against overestimating their benefits. The British Dietetic Association has stated that a smoothie should account for no more than one of the recommended five daily units of fruit and vegetables, while Neal Kaufman, director of paediatrics at a medical centre in Los Angeles, recently declared that humans were not meant to "drink their calories". He said: "Liquids like fruit juice, composed mostly of sugars, [can promote] obesity."

There are other challenges ahead for both Crussh and Boost Juice. Adam Balon, founder of Innocent, believes the coffee bars have already grabbed the best sites. "And smoothies are more costly to make," he said. But Crussh, which began in October 1998 as a single café in the City, is phlegmatic about the new Australian challenge. "Are they [the new company] scary? Yes and no," he said. "I don't think it's that easy in the UK. In Australia you've got the weather, you've got everything going for it. The UK isn't the same."