The intoxicating and crisp perfume of freshly juiced vegetables greets you first. It’s 11 a.m. inside Squeeze Juice Works, St. Pete’s first cold-press juicery, and people are literally lining up for juice.
In the back, juices are pressed, filtered, measured and poured. The bottles are then capped and ready to be loaded into the glass-doored cooler. But barely a bottle makes it from the counter to the cooler before someone scoops it up. The shop stays this busy for more than an hour. It’s as if a juice version of Krispy Kreme’s “Hot Now” neon sign were outside beckoning to passersby.
Squeeze Juice Works had its genesis two years ago when founder Kelly Lessem was navigating the onset of an auto-immune disease known as myasthenia gravis (she began feeling the effects around 2008). As a yoga instructor and massage therapist, Lessem had tried myriad juice cleanses but hadn’t found the one that was just right.
Then she discovered the cold-pressed juicing method, a process that preserves as much nutritional value as possible by never heating the ingredients. A masticating device grinds up fruits and veggies, which are then funneled into what Lessem describes as an “old-timey horse-feed bag” and squeezed under two tons of press until all the juice is pressed out.
“It breaks open the cellulose fibrous wall and releases the nucleus of the plant’s essence,” Lessem says. “Cold-pressed maintains the integrity of the plant. When heat hits food, it’s like an apple being cut and turning brown. The fruit begins to wane and begins the process of dying.”
It’s all about getting the juice while keeping as many live enzymes, vitamins and minerals alive, which is kind of the entire point of drinking juice in the first place.
“I have a friend in Seattle with a company similar to Squeeze that opened six to seven months before I started,” Lessem explains. She’d learned that raw foods could help keep her condition dormant, and went out to Seattle’s Strawberry Moon to train.
“Strawberry Moon is the gold standard for cold-pressed juice,” she says. “When I went, I didn’t even really like juice, but then I tasted cold-press and thought this is something I can play with.”
Back at home in St. Petersburg, she implemented the cold-pressed juice lifestyle using a cherry red Norwalk juicer named Betsy (after the daughter of the American Revolution).
“I started doing serious juicing,” she says. She researched what kind of healing benefits were provided by different kinds of plants and incorporated that knowledge when creating recipes. “Now my body craves it. You can train your palate in just 30 days.”
Soon after Lessem began juicing for herself, others in the community wanted a taste. By April of last year, she’d started selling juice to members of her food co-op, dubbed the “Hot Mommas of St. Petersburg.” By the time this writer found her way to Squeeze Juice Works (Lessem’s main squeeze, Todd Bates, is Creative Loafing’s creative director), people were dropping by her home morning, noon, and night, grabbing up mason jars like ring-eyed juice junkies desperate for a live-enzyme fix. And with just one sip, you can kind of see why. With combinations like apple, spinach, kale, celery, cucumber, ginger, parsley, lemon and a pinch of salt (Daily Mean Greens), drinking a Squeeze juice is that rare occasion when something good for you actually tastes good.
“When people start giving the body concentrated nutrition, your organs wake up and guide you toward healing,” Lessem says. “Ninety-nine percent of illnesses are triggered by stress; it’s all about getting the mind into balance with the body. The most effective kind of healing is the kind without any suffering.”
Soon the operation moved into a commercial kitchen. Business was still primarily a word-of-mouth affair, orders placed on Facebook, very homegrown. Lessem, Losoya, and their dedicated juicing cohort Jackie Heilner squeezed veggies and fruit into hundreds and hundreds of mason jars. With a financial boost from business partners Mike and Shawn Indrigo, Squeeze Juice was able to move into its current storefront at 675 30th Ave. N. in October, officially opening with a celebration at the end of November.
After Bay News 9 visited the shop, business soared. “We were just barely keeping up with demand until the Bay News 9 story,” Losoya tells me as she pours bottles of Galaxie 500 (beet, apple, cucumber, spinach and lemon). “We can’t make it fast enough.”
Weekdays, Lessem and Losoya and the crew arrive between 5 and 6 a.m. “On Sundays, sometimes we sleep in until 7,” Losoya says, laughing. They often stay until 11 p.m. juicing or doing consultations with customers. Rollin’ Oats regulars in St. Petersburg will see a familiar face at Squeeze in KC Cavanaugh, who just started as one of the main members of Lessem’s juice crew.
Customers walking through the door in search of juice represent a cross-section of the population — age, gender, race, economic status. “Each 16-ounce bottle contains about four to six pounds of raw organic produce,” Lessem explains to a couple who walked in curious but unfamiliar with Squeeze. The middle-aged couple say they want something for “this moment, to get started and get the idea.” They walk out with a bottle of Getting Fresh (pineapple, cucumber, mint and lemon).
Newbies usually purchase a single bottle, but seasoned Squeeze Juicers walk out with armfuls. A regular named David who works down the road from Squeeze stops by to pick up some juice for himself and his coworkers. At $8.99, sticker shock can set in until folks get more familiar with the benefits and process. Now, Squeeze offers “lil chuggers” — 8-ounce juices — for $4.99.
“We’ve calculated the average amount we’re spending on juice this year is $8,490,” David says, laughing, as Lessem hands over two carriers filled with bottles. “It’s definitely worth it.”
Tiffany Marie, who’s been coming to Lessem since the co-op days, just had a baby four days ago. While still in the hospital, she sent her husband out to get Squeeze Juice.
“Don’t be surprised if some nurses come by soon,” she tells Lessem.
Cleanses are a big part of Squeeze Juice Works’ customer base, with one, three, five, and 10-day cleanses available. Orders must be placed in advance and longer cleanses require multiple pickups. Today, there are seven three-day cleanses to produce. As New Year’s approaches, that number will grow.
Again, more bottles are filled, capped, and placed on the counter for Lessem to label before being placed in the cooler. This time it’s the bright orange special, Child’s Play, or as Lessem refers to it, “liquid sunshine in a jar.”
On this particular Thursday, Squeeze has one of its busiest days yet, bottling and selling over 300 juices. That’s why Squeeze is looking forward to the arrival of a X-1 commercial hydraulic cold-juice press. “Today I had to say no [to a customer] because the juices were already promised. I hate that,” Lessem says. “The X-1 can do what takes us four hours to now, in just an hour.”
Lessem has begun doing consultations for cancer patients, and currently has about four patients who drink 5-6 juices a day — about 32 juices a week, through a specific protocol called the Gerson Method.
“It gets the body to wake up, gets the digestion to wake up,” Lessem says. “They have to be willing to surrender to the process and be completely committed, then it works famously.”
But what she really wants is to get juice into everyone’s hands. She references the ubiquity of Coca-Cola. “I want to replace every can with our juice.” And what she means is that she doesn’t want cold-pressed juice to find its way only to “hippies and the wealthy.” What Lessem wants and what Squeeze Juice Works hopes to accomplish is to get everyone on the juice.
“People come into Squeeze and really identify as being broken. I lived that once,” Lessem says. “But the process of healing should be a place where you can really shine. We are giving you the vehicle to do that with our juice. I’m just asking you to develop a personal care system that is right for you. Once you do that, the body will lead you toward healing.”
Squeeze Juice Works, 675 30th Ave. N., Suite 101, St. Petersburg, 727-821-1095, squeezejuiceworks.com.
Note: This story has been updated since the print version was released on Thurs., Dec. 12.
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