As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Amir Mostafavi, CEO and Founder, South Block.
Amir is the founder of South Block & local pioneer in bringing cold-pressed juice, smoothies & acai bowls to the DC area. Amir first fell in love with juicing while soaking up rays on a trip to Southern California back in 1998. It wasn’t just any juice that Amir fell in love with — it was the fresh, healthy, sustainable, and high-quality ingredients that he found while in California. After jet-setting back east, Amir was unable to find that same freshness in DC. That was when he knew that it was time to bring the juice revolution to his own backyard!
Although Amir loves art, and still incorporates his love for creativity in his juice bars, he left his career as a graphic designer back in 2003. The result was the very first “California Style” juice bar to come to the DC area… really, back then there was nothing like it in DC! In 2004, Amir opened his first Juice Bar at George Washington University called Campus Fresh.
In 2011, South Block was born in Clarendon on the sleepy “South Block” side of town. But that block would soon come to life! Amir believed that he could create life out of that sleepy block, by giving people an awesome experience and making them feel fantastic through the food and the good vibes they would be serving!
Ever since then we have been on the move, taking the good vibes and great products to new communities in the DMV! With over a decade of juicing knowledge, South Block is a locally owned and operated juice bar with locations in Northern VA and DC.
Start making changes with you, your Block, your community, and watch the world around you change!
Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Growing up, my parents taught me a few important lessons that really shaped my entrepreneurial endeavors — the importance of hard work, determination, and fresh fruits and veggies. Even as he went back to school for his PhD, no matter how much we struggled, my father worked hard to always put fresh produce on our table. In 2004, I opened my first juice bar on campus at George Washington University, after a trip to the west coast, where I fell in love with the concept. I was actually one of the first people to import acai to the east coast!
From there, we have expanded to nearly 10 locations across Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, a nonprofit organization that provides fresh produce to local families in need, and the city’s first 100% nonprofit cafe — selling coffee and fresh pressed juice, among other items, and putting every cent made directly back into our nonprofit organization, Fruitful Planet.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Getting started as an entrepreneur is hard. I made a lot of very not funny mistakes in the beginning — not hiring people for the right reasons, leaving a cash deposit on my desk that got swiped, spending days creating a first batch of alkaline water only to leave it in my car and also have that stolen. A lot of my early mistakes were very broad strokes but taught me good lessons along the way. Overall, in the first three years of business, the biggest mistake I made was not having my purpose or mission as a company nailed down. I quickly learned the importance of hiring people based on right fit for the company culture vs. resume, and the company took off after that.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Blue Ocean Strategy, by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim — This was one of the books that I read early on in my career which has stuck with me since the beginning. The overall theme I took away was this — Looking at your competition and working constantly towards how to go to battle bloodies the water of your venture, creating a red ocean. In the Blue Ocean strategy — there is no competition, you just figure out what kind of business you want to run and set out to make it happen. It’s more about taking a look at your community and determining what kind of business you can create that’s unique. This book helped inspire me to do my own thing, do it the absolute best I could, without worrying about what other people around me might be doing. These principles have really been a guiding force as an entrepreneur.
The Energy Bus, by Jon Gordon — At its core, this book taught me that If you have toxic people on your team, you have to do something about it. If you get on a bus everyday with the same group of people, there might be people in the back complaining about the weather, work, etc. and regardless of whether or not you partake in the conversation, these toxic people are either going to make the other people on the bus toxic as well. The same can be said about a team — toxicity within a company can easily spread like wildfire if it’s not tended to immediately, to the point where the positive energy outweighs the negative. We use this analogy a lot at South Block — everyone on our team is riding this bus together and we don’t want anyone on the bus who might be draining the rest of us of positive energy. When we hire, this is something we look closely at.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Very soon after I opened South Block, I recognized how impactful businesses can be, and that through creating a business and vibe that I enjoyed, I could also impact other people’s lives through the work I was doing. When I started in 2004, the thought process of developing a greater purpose, or the ‘why’ of a company, wasn’t widely discussed in entrepreneurial circles, but I always found it to be incredibly important. I set out to start a business that allowed me to serve a greater purpose. I continually ask myself, how can I share my values with my employees, the people coming in, and the community around me? From day one I knew we could be more than a juice bar — we had the potential to serve a bigger purpose. I think that’s true of any company, no matter what you’re selling — every business has the ability to change people’s lives through interactions alone, the way you’re treating people, etc. and to me, there’s nothing more satisfying than that. Once we made that pivot with the business — driving every single day towards a greater purpose — I’ve been motivated ever since. I think a lot of entrepreneurs tend to lose their motivation over time because they don’t see the bigger impact that they can have on people’s lives.
This early realization led to the founding of Fruitful Planet. For us, it became incredibly obvious that there was a segment of our population that can’t afford to eat healthy, and realizing that our product is expensive for some, we asked ourselves, ‘how do we give that segment of our community access to fresh produce?’ That’s how Fruitful Planet was formed and now we can go out and raise money through our nonprofit to provide fresh fruits and veggies and healthy food options for that segment of our community
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one business principle has always been to make people feel awesome! One of core values is that a small ask can have a big impact. The only lesson I had in food service before I opened my own business was two weeks working at a sandwich shop where the boss was a huge jerk. There’s a reason I only lasted two weeks before quitting — I didn’t like how he was treating people.
Oftentimes, the reputation of food service managers can be that same sort of jerk. I told myself that opening this business wasn’t going to change me, and as I hired people, especially in management roles, I made it clear that I wasn’t going to hire jerks. It’s important that everyone that works for the company is treated awesome, which in turn helps all of our customers feel awesome. We feel that a lot of people that come to South Block are doing it because they want to feel better about themselves — whether it’s through our positive branding and messaging, the healthy food we provide, or just a positive interaction with one of our employees — we’re working hard to make sure everything we put out to our customers makes them feel awesome, and that consistency is key!
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We’re doing everything we can to keep our employees both safe and paid. Going into this, I was putting myself at risk. I have a wife and two kids — 10 and 12 years old — who have been home from school. My wife has been doing the homeschooling and they’ve been quarantined the whole time — I have been the one coming in and out of the house in order to keep the business running which has been challenging. I’m doing everything in my power to keep South Block and my people afloat, while also protecting my family. I must admit, I’ve been a little jealous of parents who have been able to be home and spend this additional time with their families, though I understand the challenges that come with that as well. I am trying to limit my interaction with my loved ones to keep them safe and healthy which is incredibly difficult.
I was also putting myself into additional exposure by taking on the responsibility of donations drop-offs to hospitals, nursing homes, and local food banks — I was making these deliveries personally so as not to jeopardize the health of any of my employees. Somewhere along the line though, I did contract Coronavirus. During that time, I completely quarantined myself in my basement — I didn’t go into any of the stores and stayed away from my family to make sure everyone I cared about was safe. I don’t think I’ve had this much time spent away from the business in over 15 years, and if there was one silver lining to contracting this disease, it was the fact that my team stepped up and completely took care of things while I was down for the count. It was a really proud moment for me! It has always been my goal to get the business to the point where the doors would stay open and things would run smoothly with or without me. The business is officially bigger than me, with roughly 115 employees that we’re taking care of, and it’s great to see that the business continues to be looked after, even if I’m not in everyday! It was pretty awesome to see.
Professionally, I’ve been spending a lot of my time in quarantine working on nation-wide shipping which is slated to happen in June. At the beginning of quarantine, we developed at-home acai kits that have been a huge hit and brightened people’s days within our own community — we’re working to ship those and our fresh pressed juices out on a national scale. Having the time to focus on other projects like this has been one huge benefit to being quarantined.
On a more personal note, I bought my kids skateboards and we’ve been having a ton of fun learning that together — I used to skateboard when I was a kid so it’s been fun teaching them that a skill that we can enjoy together!
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The scariest thing about all of this continues to be the unknown…
In the beginning, we weren’t sure what capacity we could continue operating in. I think the biggest challenge along the way has been just trying to keep everyone safe. Fortunately, we’ve done a really good job — if anyone was going to contract Coronavirus, I was happy it was me and incredibly fortunate that it was a very mild case of the virus. The biggest concern for me continues to be the virus spreading through our team and we’re just doing everything we can to keep everyone safe.
A lot of our customers eat our products — acai bowls, fresh pressed juices, and healthy snacks — as part of a larger healthy lifestyle. We have worked around the clock to develop creative ways that still give them access to all of our products. Quick service is an essential business and I fully recognize that my employees are putting themselves and their health at risk every single day by coming in. They’re working hard right alongside me and I really appreciate that — I think people in food service really deserve a lot of credit right now.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
This is presenting an opportunity to help people and find solutions. Life as we know it is not over… in fact, if you frame it currently, it’s just starting. For myself, my team, and my family, I’ve been trying to focus on the hopes and the silver lining associated with all of this. It’s more of a big picture thing, but I think there’s going to be a lot of positive things that come from this in the end. Once people are able to interact with each other again, there’s going to be a heightened level of appreciation for a lot of things in our lives that we may have been taking for granted before.
But to immediately fight the anxieties and fears, for me, it’s been great to just get outside. The timing of this is something we’re extraordinarily lucky about — having the ability to get outside is huge. When it’s nice out, I try and spend as much time as I can in my backyard, doing meditation, doing yoga, playing with my kids — just trying to stay active which has had hugely positive impacts on my mental health.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, my team and I have worked tirelessly to pivot our business model, and while we plan to continue still moving forward with our regular business model when all is said and done, this time has shown us how much more we’re capable of. We plan to slow down a bit on our brick and mortar establishments, and ramp up our shipping and additional areas of commerce and revenue so that we don’t have all our eggs in one basket, should anything like this ever happen again.
Prior to Coronavirus, most people placed their orders in-person at one of our locations — the majority of patrons never used our apps or any outside food apps to place orders. Now, as they start to fully understand the ease of it, I think we’re going to see a lot of this in the future — things were already heading this way but the pandemic has put a jumpstart on it, and we plan to continue focusing on it.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I believe the Covid pandemic is providing us all — especially business owners, and even more so for those of us in the food service industry — with a heightened sense of awareness around germs and cleanliness. It’ll be interesting to see when people feel comfortable eating off of utensils and dishes in restaurants again. I think this is something that will stick with people and be in the back of their minds for a while moving forward. It’s all good things though — this is something we have always taken pride in in our business, so we plan to continue doing our best to make people feel comfortable.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We’re continuing to focus on our team — hiring for culture and building our amazing group. I’m also excited to see what sort of opportunities nation-wide shipping might provide to the business. It’s exciting to think that very soon, someone on the West Coast might be able to enjoy one of our bowls from here in D.C.!
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to first and foremost decide what your values are and live by those values — in good times and bad. Personal and professional life, for me, has always been super blended. I always encourage people to make professional decisions based on their personal values. Hopefully this is a reminder to people that the impact you have on your family and the people around you is so important, and people never again take for granted spending time with their families.
For me, going forward with the business, I have had this sort of realization that whatever you’re doing for a living, work to make it bigger. Find something you’re passionate about, and lend that to providing hope and opportunities for other people. For me, it’s rewarding to be able to help people through my business and then with that, it doesn’t feel like work — it’s just what your life is! I encourage people to figure out what is important — both personally and professionally — and to just go for it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“People over profits.” It’s ironic because when you put people over profits, you often become profitable as a result! But it’s important to always put people first — this is a philosophy that I live by, in order to make everyone associated with my company feel awesome. I’ve seen lots of great businesses prioritize profit over people, and it ends up being their downfall.
How can our readers further follow your work?
@southblock @amirmost @fruitfulplanet