Squeezing Together

With 30 locations now and about 100 in development, Main Squeeze Juice Co. is making bold moves toward achieving household name status in the healthy living market. For CEO and Metairie native Thomas Nieto, bringing family in has been the winning recipe.

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Thomas Nieto never expected to be the CEO of a company whose mission is “Making Healthy Easier.” Nieto had built his career in a very different field, first with AT&T and then as COO of In & Out Smart Repair, a chain of cell phone repair stores that Nieto helped grow into the third-largest player in the sector before selling the business in 2017.

And he never liked eating vegetables.

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Nieto’s turning point came with the sale of In & Out. While in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to explore another cell phone-related business opportunity, Nieto found himself in a brand-new juice bar. Owners Matt and Miranda Duplichan encouraged him to sample their plant-based menu of cold-pressed juices, smoothies, and acai bowls, and Nieto reluctantly complied.

His immediate reactions? First, “How could something so healthy taste so good?” and second, “This is too good not to share.”

With the help of brother-in-law/CFO Michael Canseco, sister/chief dietitian officer Julie Nieto Canseco, and a dedicated team, since purchasing the company in 2017, Nieto has built Main Squeeze Juice Co. into a franchised brand and juice juggernaut. New Orleans customers may know Main Squeeze from its partnerships with former New Orleans Saints players Marques Colston and Thomas Morstead, or they may have visited one of the chain’s dozen Louisiana locations, including the latest downtown in Place St. Charles.

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Aided by the purchase of I Love Juice Bar — a brand based primarily in Tennessee and Texas — Main Squeeze is approaching the 40-location mark (Nieto hopes to reach 45 by year end), with an average monthly store volume of $50,000 in gross sales. Operating out of its Uptown New Orleans headquarters, the company is targeting additional locations across the southern United States, particularly in hot spots like Arizona and Florida, where multi-site deals are underway.

As Main Squeeze continues to offer its healthy, convenient options to more customers in more locations, Nieto weighs in on what it’s like to lead a fast-growing company with family by his side.

What convinced you to pivot from technology to juice?

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I cut my teeth with AT&T in business, and it’s where I really developed my passion for leading teams. I was the minority partner and COO of [In & Out Repair]… but my buddy wanted to sell and I kind of got out-leveraged. It was a dark moment for me, honestly… In my mind, I was like, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You don’t get this chance again.’ In reality, [the sale] was the best thing that ever happened to me, but I couldn’t see it at the time.

I was going to take six months off and figure out what to do next… [but] the day after the press release went out on the national wire, my phone was getting blown up with opportunities to partner with different people and do different ventures… I was like, ‘Might as well strike while the iron is hot and go explore these opportunities.’ I ended up stumbling into Lake Charles, Louisiana, with some guys that owned a cell phone repair concept. I was checking out their company while I was in Lake Charles, and [one of the owners] was like, ‘My little sister is about to open a juice and smoothie bar and I would love for you to come help them unload produce.’

I remember walking into that business — it was Main Squeeze, a mom-and-pop juice bar. It was almost love at first sight. With my background from AT&T and retail, I have an appreciation for merchandising and design, and I was just blown away by the beautiful, crisp, clean, elegant design. After helping unload the produce, I was like, ‘I’ll try the products but, full transparency, I don’t really do juice.’

I tried every single juice they had; I couldn’t believe that I was drinking stuff with beets, spinach and kale… and LOVING everything. I was like, ‘What are y’all doctoring this stuff up with?’ They said each bottle has 2-4 pounds of produce. They use a proprietary vertical press, cold presser, no heat, so you get 100 percent of the nutrients. I’m like, ‘2-4 pounds of produce? That’s more produce than I consume in 6 months.’ They let me try the smoothies… the best smoothies I’ve ever had. They don’t use any ice or fillers or syrups — it’s just whole fruits and vegetables, organic superfood enhancers. Same with the acai bowls. By the time it’s all done, I can’t believe I’m loving all this healthy stuff. From somebody who’s from Southeast Louisiana… who never ate vegetables my whole life… that was the lightbulb moment for me.

I just remember thinking that if you can win me over, you can win the world. I left there and made two phone calls: [my brother-in-law] Michael Canseco and Jessie Williams, my employee who worked with me at In & Out and AT&T and still works with me today. I said, ‘Mark my words: We’re getting into the juice business.’

So much for my six-month vacation… We sold In & Out in April 2017. I ended up founding the entity of the franchise company in June. From July to August, we were writing the [franchise disclosure document], tracking down the guy who owned the marks [to ‘Main Squeeze’], bought the marks, raised some capital and put myself in position to start franchising. Meanwhile, I’m taking my operations experience with AT&T and basically writing the operations manual for Main Squeeze because their recipes were like, ‘a pinch of this and a handful of that’… so we had to make all this scalable, replicable, then start franchising in September of 2017. The rest is history.

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What does your geographic expansion look like?

Our pocket is definitely the South, Southeast and into the Southwest — areas that are really hot. We’ve already experienced, even being where we are, some seasonality impacts [on items like acai bowls and smoothies] in the winter months. So that would be magnified in my mind if we were up North.

I’m a big cluster believer because the world of food distribution becomes almost impossible if you’re doing one store here and a few stores there.

They really have to cluster up, and make a few other competitive leverage points as well, to be able to squeeze out the competitors. We just did a big deal end of last year… a 30-unit development deal in Arizona. We have a 10-unit deal in Jacksonville, Florida, and want to continue developing there and just kind of dominating market share in the South.

How do you support franchisees?

Before we ever started licensing, I started developing our software. I literally established a software company. With my background from AT&T, I know data is very powerful, and technology is going to give you cutting-edge advantages. For us, it’s about guest experience and empowering franchisees with the knowledge and real-time data they need to make the right decisions for the business. It’s also about making everything as easy as possible for the operators… to have the system work for them. That was the idea, being able to have a system that we can also adapt and tailor to our needs. I view that as a leverage point and a competitive advantage for our franchisees versus other concepts.

For example, we created a juice hub portal in our system that isn’t like anything that exists out there. Our system calculates and tells you how much you need to produce, what the ingredients are, and it knows what you have on hand because it’s a full-fledged inventory management system. It’s a competitive advantage for our franchisees and helps us deliver a better, more consistent experience for customers.

What do you offer beyond juice?

We’re really focused on the different products that we need to introduce to our menu to fill in the gaps for the day part sales where we don’t have the penetration. Hot, fresh food is going to be a major priority. Right now, total fresh food as a category is about 5-10% for us, depending on location [and if they offer the new breakfast sandwich]. But we want to grow that to a 30% category by the end of next year. That’s going to lift total sales and help us have better endurance through the winter months.

There’s not a lot of plant-based meal options out there that are top quality, taste really good, and are easily available on the go. That’s why that’s our mission statement is ‘Making Healthy Easier.’ It’s about making it affordable, which we drive through our loyalty program (we’ve got some other stuff in the works there), making it taste amazing, and making it quick and convenient.

How did this business become a family endeavor?

[My brother-in-law] and I had always dreamed about working together. That opportunity presented itself with the In & Out deal — he was our general counsel. So, we already had made a pact: whatever we do, we’re doing it together. When we were starting Main Squeeze, I was at his house until like 2 a.m. every night brainstorming, strategizing, trying to put these deals together to raise capital. [My sister] Julie was like, ‘Get out of my house!’ She was working with Eat Fit NOLA at the time. She’s a registered dietitian — that’s her passion. Because I was always over at the house, she was hearing what we were doing in Main Squeeze and started getting intrigued. My dad actually brokered that deal. I told Julie, ‘I have no doubt you’d be incredible. But we’re a startup. I don’t have any stores open. I can guarantee you 90 days, and you’re going to have to take a pay cut. Outside 90 days, I have no guarantees’… She was like, ‘After 90 days, you won’t be able to afford for me to leave.’ And she was right. That was five years ago.

My dad — who has a background in construction management — got involved early on when we started working on the buildout for the first corporate location [in Katy, Texas]. He jumped on board and helped us with our first 10 builds. Me, Julie, my dad, Michael, Michael’s mom as our CPA/controller, then Michael’s sister ended up becoming our marketing director. So, it ended up becoming a family affair — not by design, it just kind of happened.

How has it been running a new family business?

Usually, that’s a bad idea and doesn’t really work, but, fortunately, it’s in our DNA. We’re very competitive, everybody’s got very good work ethics. We’re not overly emotional. We’re very supportive of each other and can make objective decisions. Me, Julie, and Michael are a trio. We’re a bond that cannot be broken, and it really is a very cool thing. It was a cool thing to get to experience that with my dad for a few years, the joy of being able to work with him and spend that much time together and go through the journey together. This is like living your dream: getting up every morning and being able to do something you’re really proud of… with people you genuinely love being around. [That includes] family and, frankly, my employees, who might not be blood family but they’re my adopted family. It’s very much a family vibe within our team.

What advice would you give other family businesses?

It’s usually not a good idea, statistically, objectively speaking, because businesses are tough. You’re going be faced with some real shit. And at the end of the day, when family is involved, it can be consequential. It’s one thing if things go south with an employee… but when it’s your family, it’s more precious. The risk is higher in that regard. For me, the reason that this works is that Julie and I don’t compete against each other. We lift each other up. We try to take the emotions out of it and make objective business decisions. You have to be grounded in that reality when you’re running a business with a family member. Julie, Michael, and I got good at being able to compartmentalize the family element. My mom might argue that point — she’s always like, ‘Stop talking about work!’ But you’ve got to be able to separate. When it’s business, it’s business.

We have a responsibility that’s greater than ourselves. It’s not about you, it’s not about me, it’s about making sure we’re doing the right thing for the business and we’re protecting our own. And our own is not our own family. Our own is our extended family — the complete and whole family of our employees, our franchisees and our customers.


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