Wellness in a bottle? La Vie offers on-the-go boosts

Kareem Hyver pours a taste of La Vie's "Refreshing Green" juice at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Raw foods, recombined: That’s what you’ll find with Watsonville-based La Vie’s probiotic mixtures of fruits, vegetables and nut milks that are good and good for you. You can find its products at five farmers market locations throughout Santa Cruz County.

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A lot of food is good, and a lot of food is good for you — but sometimes it’s hard to find food that’s good and good for you. C’est La Vie.

No, really: La Vie, a Watsonville-based wellness company that specializes in probiotic fruit and vegetable juices, shots and soups, sells products that not only improve your health but are also delightfully refreshing. Its founder, Yeyen Gunawan, says the effects of La Vie’s offerings should be immediately discernible: You should feel good consuming them.

“The food you eat should give you energy,” Gunawan said. “It’s the same idea that when you drink alcohol, it goes into your bloodstream and you feel it right away — except our stuff gives you different effects.”

Gunawan, by her own reckoning, entered the health food business by accident. A real estate agent by trade, Gunawan said a friend recommended that she try the raw foods at Café Gratitude in San Francisco after she had a bout of brain fog and other digestion-related health problems. Gunawan was blown away. Not only was the food delicious — it improved her health in the space of a few months, she says.

“I was like, ‘Wow, if this helps me, this should help other people,’” Gunawan said.

Gunawan opened Café La Vie in downtown Santa Cruz in 2005, serving a wide variety of raw, vegetarian meals and drinks. Though the restaurant itself closed in 2009 amid the looming financial pressures of the Great Recession, Gunawan kept the business’ juice-making apparatus going, distributing the goods at farmers markets throughout Santa Cruz County.

And so La Vie’s current business model was born. Now operating from a kitchen and “tasting room” near downtown Watsonville, La Vie employs about 30 people who manufacture, market and sell the company’s eclectic array of foods and beverages at 24 farmers markets throughout Santa Cruz County and the San Francisco Bay Area. Mainstays are La Vie’s beet kvass — a traditional fermented beverage with roots in Eastern Europe that the company inoculates with “millions of active probiotics per ounce” — and its Green Smoothie, made with sprouted almond milk, kale, bananas and vanilla bean powder. New to the menu are a line of premade soups and salads, which Gunawan said are tailored to people with lifestyles similar to hers.

“Busy people, they want to have healthy food, too,” Gunawan said. “Sometimes I just want to grab a jar and eat it in the car.”

La Vie founder Yeyen Gunawan.
(Via Yeyen Gunawan)

So you might be asking: How do the drinks taste?

Kareem Hyver, who staffs La Vie’s stand at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market on Wednesdays, recommended I try a bottle of the Green Smoothie, which happened to be in the half-price ice bin. The drink is relatively rich and thick in texture, but has a refreshing finish that seems to stem from the kale and banana.

The “Blood” beet kvass, though having a name, color and salinity that conjures Vlad the Impaler-esque images, is actually quite delicious. The apple and pomegranate in it lend a good amount of tartness, rounded out by the earthy, salty taste of its kvass base.

Hyver said he essentially lives off the stuff, having a bottle of the company’s Refreshing Green mulberry leaf and peppermint juice in the morning, a Blood juice in the early afternoon, and a turmeric shot to help with exercise-related inflammation.

“I’ve been working [for La Vie] for about a year now, and since then I’ve lost 30 pounds,” Hyver says. “I’ve taken on a much healthier mindset.”

Of course, there’s an elephant in the room: La Vie’s drinks are rather pricey. Twelve-ounce bottles of its kvass drinks run between $9 and $10, while the almond and coconut-based drinks are upward of $10. The company also offers six-drink starter kits it says will jump-start various parts of the body (the liver, the digestive tract, the immune system) for $60.

For Gunawan, it’s all about priorities.

“A lot of our customers care about where they get their food from and want to support local business,” she said. “A lot of them are foodies, who don’t care as much about the price point as they do the quality and the taste of the food.”

La Vie sets up shop at the farmers markets in downtown Santa Cruz, the Westside, Live Oak, Felton and Scotts Valley. See its website for a full list of its locations.