Marine Corps Veteran Finds New Mission Running His Juice It Up! Franchise

Discipline and skills he learned as a marine are the perfect framework to run this healthy food franchise

Willie Smith opens the doors of his Temecula, CA, juice franchise at 6:30 every morning. As soon as the doors are opened, he and his team are blending strawberries, blueberries and mango into delicious smoothies to sell at five different schools later in the day. After those are made and in the freezer to prepare them for the afternoon’s mobile catering, Smith goes for his run. “I’ll run for about an hour or so, just to clear my mind and to get rid of stress, any kind of anxiety.” It’s his most productive time of day, idea-wise. And it gets him psyched for the busy day ahead as a multi-unit juice franchise owner for Juice It Up!

In 2010, Smith retired as a master sergeant after 27 years in the Marines, a career that took him across the country and around the world, including two tours in Okinawa, Japan, and one in Afghanistan. Smith had an idea that franchising would be a good career move for his civilian life. In the Marines, he oversaw operations, managed supplies, learned sales skills, marketing and communications through recruitment and also honed his leadership skills as an officer. And he’s especially glad that he discovered Juice It Up!, a healthy food franchise that would be a positive asset for his community.

“When I got out, my thoughts were a franchise because I knew a franchise already had a system in place, they’d done the hard work of creating the business model, and I wanted to jump in and be able to follow guidelines and rules because I’m used to that. I got a broker and I told him my criteria: something healthy, something where I could be engaged in the community and something I could be proud to go home and tell my family, ‘Hey, we own this.’ I wanted something that added value to the community.”

After shopping a few concepts that didn’t feel quite right, Smith went back to his broker, who then found Juice It Up! “Instantly, I fell in love with it. I talked to Carol (DeNembo, Vice President of Business Development) and other folks at the corporate office, and it felt like a family.”

Juice It Up! juice and smoothie franchise has been in business since 1995 and was the first franchise to introduce the superfruit açaí to the consumer market. Innovation has always been an important part of this classic Southern California brand, which has 100 units open or in development. The simple business model is easy to operate, with ongoing training and support, and requires no prior restaurant experience, making it an ideal opportunity for veterans.

“They help you with the business plan, they help you every step of the way,” Smith says. “I was fresh out of the military — I didn’t know what to do. But they help you with everything.”

That made it so much easier to transition from the armed services to being on the front (civilian) lines of helping people live healthier lives.

A different kind of leadership

Leadership skills are a must in any good franchise owner, and Smith definitely wasn’t lacking in that department. Still, there was a bit of a learning curve when it came to how he exercised his leadership. Marines have a reputation for toughness, so Marine leaders tend to do a lot of yelling and making people do push-ups to toughen up their charges. That doesn’t really work on civilians.

“There is no screaming and yelling. That doesn’t translate,” Smith says, chuckling. “I had to go from telling people what to do to getting the buy-in from my employees on what needed to be done. I had to learn to listen to them and explain things to them. I had to change my style of mentoring, really.”

One of the creative ways Smith has accomplished that is with his leadership book club. “You have to help your employees develop their own leadership skills. I have a book club where we go through leadership books, and it gives me the opportunity to mentor these kids.”

“I love reading,” Smith says. “I found books were a good way to have a third party validate what I’ve been teaching them. It’s different when they hear it from a third party. It makes a bigger impact.”

Advice for other veterans

Smith thinks veterans should be encouraged by the support – both moral and financial – that they can count on from Juice It Up!, which provides discounted franchise fees to vets. He also wants his fellow veterans to know that in many ways they’ll find the franchise world similar to the one they’re leaving behind, with a certain chain of command and step-by-step procedures to follow for all aspects of the job.

Of course, there are always challenges.

“The biggest thing I wish I’d known about is the transition from dealing with Marines to dealing with civilian kids working for you. I wish I’d had some guidance on that, about the importance of hiring the right employees or finding the right people vs. in the military, where you’re forced to deal with whomever you get. Here, you have to find the right people and then mold them for the right positions. You have to realize that’s your biggest asset — your employees.”

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