In September, the highly anticipated BetterBlends, an AI-powered smoothie store, opened its doors in downtown San Francisco, generating excitement and hope for an economic boost to the struggling area.
The store, which boasted "Your Smoothie, powered by AI," garnered positive attention for its innovative use of artificial intelligence. However, less than two months later, the store closed its doors without explanation, leaving both customers and the community puzzled.
The Rise and Fall of BetterBlends
BetterBlends had initially captured the imagination of the public and the press with its catchy slogan. This novel approach to smoothie making generated huge excitement, showcasing a blend of artificial intelligence and healthy beverages.
The concept was simple yet innovative: customers placed their orders and shared their preferences with an AI model, which then generated a unique smoothie recipe. Co-founders Michael Parlato and Clayton Reynolds, who were actively involved in the shop, manually blended the concoctions, creating a personalized experience.
However, the once-promising store now stands empty. On October 20, a sign on the locked doors of BetterBlends declared it as "temporarily closed," promising to reopen in one hour.
However, locals in the neighbourhood reported that the storefront had remained shut for over three weeks. By the following Monday, the sign had disappeared, and the shop's interior was devoid of blenders, fruits, vegetables, and other supplies necessary for making smoothies, with or without AI. Only a trashcan and a few plants were left behind.
Mixed Reviews and Google Maps Woes
A Google Maps review posted just two weeks ago painted a mixed picture of the store. One customer wrote, "I was hopeful for this business. The owners, however, did not understand the discipline to run a restaurant."
They cited inconsistent opening hours and abrupt changes in the schedule. Despite such criticism, other reviews awarded BetterBlends with four or five stars. The shop's owners even uploaded pictures of their smoothies and happy customers, which appeared to be generated by AI, featuring perfect, yet strangely unrealistic, smiles and distorted fruits and cups.
The closure of BetterBlends comes at a time when San Francisco continues to grapple with one of the slowest economic recoveries from COVID-19 in the United States. BetterBlends, located on Market Street, was situated in one of the hardest-hit areas, which was once a bustling hub for tech offices but had seen a huge drop in foot traffic. The store's opening had sparked optimism in the community, symbolising the potential resurgence of the city's business landscape, driven by the booming artificial intelligence industry.
Co-founder Clayton Reynolds had expressed enthusiasm for the local response, stating that it had been "phenomenal." However, Christian Cecena, who works at a nearby coffee shop, revealed that the "be back in an hour" sign had been displayed on BetterBlends' door for weeks. A local community outreach worker stationed outside the store noted that the longest consecutive opening period they observed was only two weeks.
San Francisco still listed BetterBlends in its database of active food service establishments as of October 25. Nevertheless, the company and its co-founders remained silent, failing to respond to numerous requests for comment.
The Bigger Picture for San Francisco
The sudden closure of BetterBlends adds to the challenges faced by downtown San Francisco, which is currently experiencing the highest office vacancy rate in its history and the highest retail vacancy rate since 2006.
The city has been making steady efforts to revitalize empty storefronts and sidewalks by offering grants and tax breaks aimed at the area where BetterBlends briefly operated. Notably, San Francisco's Office of Economic and Workforce Development confirmed that BetterBlends had not received any funding from their office.
Daniel Sider, chief of staff at the San Francisco planning department, downplayed the significance of BetterBlends' closure, stating, "While the failure of San Francisco's generative AI blockchain-powered autonomous 5G smoothie bot may be splashy, in no way is it a bellwether for downtown."
Sider pointed out the nearby Ikea's new retail and coworking center and the conversion of empty office space into apartments, highlighting more promising signs of revival in the area.
Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, the economist who had previously warned about San Francisco's risk of entering a "doom loop," emphasized the importance of successful retail stores in the city's recovery.
He noted that although the AI sector is thriving and leasing office space, San Francisco is still far from achieving healthy levels of office vacancy.
Uncertain Future for BetterBlends
It remains unclear what the future holds for BetterBlends or whether the store had ever intended to remain open for an extended period.
The co-founders had previously worked at Local Kitchens, a food technology startup, and had sought $1 million in funding to expand BetterBlends' technology to apps and other businesses.
The shop's website displayed minimal contact information, with an email address listed under "How to invest" for customers interested in contributing to the next generation of dining.
On a Friday morning, as BetterBlends sat empty, customers flocked to the neighboring coffee shop, where Christian Cecena worked. He also served smoothies, competitively priced at $7.50, a more budget-friendly alternative to BetterBlends' $10 bespoke smoothies.
Cecena candidly commented, "I hate to say this, but I did hear that the smoothies weren't that good."
The closure of BetterBlends marks the end of a short-lived venture that had once offered a promising blend of AI and smoothies, ultimately leaving the downtown San Francisco community with dashed hopes and unfulfilled promises.