Fresh marks "The Spot": New business features items with obscure, but healthy, South American fruit

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PITTSFIELD — Jon Vella bummed around for awhile after graduating from college, taking several trips to California and Florida. While on the West Coast, he came to enjoy a concoction similar to a smoothie that is made from an obscure South American fruit with a name that is easily mispronounced.

"Everywhere I've always been there was an acai bowl," Vella said. "When I would come home there would be a void for me."

An acai what now?

Before we go any further, let's just say that acai berries have several healthful qualities, and this emphasis on fresh is what led two young Berkshire entrepreneurs, Vella and Craig Hopkins, to open "The Spot," which sells smoothies, bowls, and other healthy concoctions made from organic fruit in a former Subway sandwich shop at 381 Tyler St.

Acai (pronounced ah-cy-e) berries are small, 1-inch round fruits that grow on acai palm trees in the rain forests of Central and South America. Just 70 calories, nutrient dense, and packed with omegas, healthy fats and protein, acai berries are considered a food staple in the Amazon region, according to Healthline.com, which refers to them as a Brazilian "superfruit".

"Simply put, they're like a blueberry on steroids," Vella said.

At The Spot, Hopkins and Vella make acai bowls by blending the berry with other fruits like blueberries, raspberries and strawberries or pineapple and mango to "make a frozen smoothie like sorbet," Vella said. The mixture is then topped with granola or a related topping like coconut flakes.

"The bowls are just like a healthy food meal replacement, and they're undeniably good," Vella said. "Everyone who comes in here and has one of these things is shocked."

Hopkins is less hyperbolic, but just as positive.

"No one's had a bad experience," he said.

The Spot isn't the only Berkshire establishment that offers acai bowls— a Google search of the term reveals at least one other county eatery that has them. But acai bowls are what The Spot's menu is based around, and their fresh and healthy benefits form the philosophy that led Vella and Hopkins to open their business.

Vella, 24, who grew up in Lanesborough, graduated from UMass-Amherst's prestigious Stockbridge School of Agriculture with a degree in landscape contracting. Hopkins, 23, of Pittsfield, majored in business and music at UMass-Dartmouth.

MET AT EVENTS

While still in college, Vella began a small clothing line called "Dipitus" (taken loosely from the word serendipitas), and sold items from his collection at events that he would promote. Hopkins, a professional emcee or rapper, began wearing Vella's clothing. The duo first met at shows in both Amherst and Brooklyn, N.Y. two years ago.

"That's kind of how we got on each other's radar," Hopkins said.

They began discussing plans.

"When I finished school I went to Kenya for a little while," Hopkins said, "which is where me and him began talking more. When I came home, we really linked up and began to put our heads together ... He had this whole idea that he came to me with."

Vella wanted to do something associated with a college interest in permaculture, a creative design process that copies patterns and relationships in nature that can be applied to all facets of human life, from agriculture to economics.

"Biosymmetry, I think, is the word, for it," Hopkins said.

They decided to build all their entrepreneurial ideas around the acai bowls — Hopkins refers to The Spot as "the umbrella" over Dipitus — and believed that their idea would work here.

"There's a wave coming with the health food craze," Hopkins said. "Everybody wants to be more conscious of what they eat and what they're putting in their bodies."

Vella's father, Ed Vella Jr., is a contractor who owns a laundromat on Tyler Street. His sister is Jessica Rufo, who owns Dottie's Coffee Lounge and a recently opened bakery on Tyler Street. Father assisted son in his endeavors by purchasing the former sub shop in May for $125,000.

"I was looking at buildings and other opportunities and this Subway was sitting here vacant," Vella said. "It was already built out to code and everything. We didn't really have to do anything except paint the walls."

Saving on overhead allowed Hopkins and Vella to concentrate on the menu which includes four kinds of acai bowls that range in price from $9 to $10 and four types of smoothies between $7 to $9 (customers can also create their own concoctions). The Spot is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.

The Spot also offers "wellness shots," a combination of wheat grass and fresh juice, and has begun introducing other products such as items made with beet carrot ginger.

"We use fresh, organic food," Hopkins said. "That's our big push. We try not to use ice. We freeze organic fruit first, then you don't have to use ice. That gives us the kind of consistency that no one was achieving around here."

There's more. Furniture and paintings, both done by friends, are also for sale at The Spot along with items from Vella's clothing line. The partners recently hired their first employee.

"We're probably going to bring another one on," Vella said. "we're getting a little burned out."

Get that man an acai bowl.

Contact Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.




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