The Daily Catch

From Covid Curb to Convivial Counter, Red Hook’s Bliss Juice + Smoothie Bar Readies for its Fourth Year

BLISS owners Mike Kelly and Annie Sullivan cofounded their Red Hook business at the height of the Covid pandemic (photo by Emily Sachar).

“Drink raw, live long.” This declaration is etched in white chalk on a blackboard that hangs over the sales counter at BLISS Juice + Smoothie Bar on East Market Street in Red Hook. The words capture the essence of the mission that has propelled two 27-year-old college sweethearts, Annie Sullivan and Mike Kelly of Woodstock, to devote their lives to providing a tasty source of healthy food to the residents of Northern Dutchess County. 

Walking into their store just east of the Four Corners is like entering an indoor garden sharing space with an art display. Leafy vines and tropical shrubs envelop many corners of the shop, and colorful text accompanies illustrations of smoothies and juices that cover the chalkboard menus on BLISS’s light blue walls. 

On a typical day, the whirr of a blender, the friendly smiles of Sullivan, Kelly, and their staff, and the energizing pop music playing over the loudspeakers provide a sense of life and warmth. In the words of Sullivan’s mother and business advisor, Tara Sullivan, “BLISS is all about bliss.” 

The interior of BLISS is a mix of arty typography, soft-colored walls, and verdant foliage (photo by Emily Sachar).

The couple is riding a wave of national fascination with healthy eating and drinking borne of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the market research company Fortune Business Insights, worldwide cold-pressed juice sales have increased significantly since 2020. The $1.32-billion global industry continues to grow across North America, with sales increasing by roughly $40 million between 2022 and 2023 alone.

Indeed, Sullivan reports that gross revenues at Bliss have jumped 425 percent since opening day in June 2020. However, expansion at such a fast clip is also the result of the founding couple’s drive to help the citizens of Red Hook. “The hardest part of the job is trying to exceed my own expectations every single day,” Kelly says. That means keeping not only the ingredients fresh but also the vision for the menu.

For example, the couple just reintroduced a spring-summer hit called Sweet Baby. Its primary ingredients are watermelon, apple, cucumber, basil, and lime. Bliss also recently announced a play on model and socialite Hailey Bieber’s Strawberry Glaze Skin smoothie, that the store is calling Model Behavior. 

Bard Assistant Professor Valentina Grasso visits BLISS to buy matcha, a drink she feels fortifies her as a nursing mom (photo by Emily Sachar).

According to Sullivan, these are just a few of the new options she and Kelly plan to introduce in the coming months. Such offerings will join an array of juices in Easter egg colors that carry names like Green Magic, Happy T, Revive, and Immunity. For each, the team details its ingredients and the maladies it can help to address. The owners use organic, seasonal, and local fruits and vegetables, sourcing from Greig Farm, which supplies kale; Rose Hill Farm for apples, berries, and cherries; Liberty Farms of Ghent for leafy and micro-greens; and Veritas Farms, a produce wholesaler in New Paltz. 

The price of a BLISS beverage ranges from $6 to $18. Sullivan says the store has always set its prices as low as possible, driving the minimum profit margin to cover costs and hire staff to fuel growth. Three employees, two full-time and one part-time, now work at Bliss, each earning at least $21, a wage intended to boost the sustainability of the shop’s human capital, according to Sullivan.

Indeed, BLISS’s success also leans on the quality of its team. Sullivan and Kelly move around the store in a relaxed way and greet customers with smiles and friendly conversation. They serve a core group of regulars who loyally visit the shop several times a month, as well as many newcomers. “They’re very nice here,” exclaimed Eliza Gonzalez as she shared a strawberry banana smoothie with her young son. 

Environmental considerations are also important to BLISS. Sullivan and Kelly have taken pains to incorporate glass bottles, biodegradable straws, and wooden spoons into their store’s daily commerce. They’ve also initiated a program that has brought their company into the glass recycling business by charging a $1 fee for every glass bottle; they remit that dollar when a customer returns it.

The refrigerated display case at BLISS reveals a rainbow of products, all made with natural ingredients (photo by Michael Lachenmeyer).

The health value of the offerings is also a draw for many customers. Valentina Grasso, an assistant professor of medieval history at Bard, stops by frequently to order a drink that supports her body’s ability to nurse her newborn. “I’m a huge fan of matcha, and this is great nutrition for both of us,” Grasso said. 

Bliss’s landlord, Todd Baright, is also a fan. “We are absolutely thrilled to have them as tenants,” he said, “because we believe they are a wonderful asset to the community and to our visitors. And besides, they have such a healthy offering. We should all be in there all the time!”

Kelly and Sullivan also tout the medicinal benefits of their products, a common practice in the herbals and juices business, even though the products are not subject to FDA review. For example, a typical post on the BLISS Instagram page reads, “Hey Friends! Allergy and Cold Season is upon us…BLISS to the rescue. Boost that body, stay healthy, and feel energized!”

Annie Sullivan’s mother, Tara, has been a community leader and helps guide business planning at BLISS (photo by Michael Lachenmeyer).

The couple says BLISS juices can indeed support kidney, heart, and liver function, reduce inflammation, enhance the immune system, and even aid in DNA repair. Sullivan shared citations for nearly two dozen academic papers that support these claims, and Sullivan’s mother proudly states that BLISS’s hibiscus tea cured her high blood pressure and rebalanced her cholesterol. 

Sequoia Kristal, an accredited nutrition consultant and the owner of Purslane Nutrition in Kingston, said she largely approves of BLISS’s marketing practices. In an email to The Daily Catch, Kristal said that the health claims are largely credible and that the store is a great resource for locals interested in consuming healthy, organic food. 

However, she also cast a hint of caution on some of the store’s marketing. “I think being a nutrition consultant has made me take care with the verbiage I use, which is why a few of their claims make me nervous,” Kristal told The Daily Catch. But, she added, “Juices and smoothies can help aid the body.” The hydrating features are clear, she said, and some of the vitamins may aid DNA repair.

Kristal and Sullivan also agree that juices should not replace whole fruits and vegetables for extended periods. Fruit and vegetable juices lack fiber, which the Mayo Clinic says is important for maintaining digestive health, normalizing blood sugar levels, and lowering the risk of heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. 

Kelly chats with BLISS regular Kendle Ruzich (photo by Michael Lachenmeyer).

Part of BLISS’s menu is geared to customers interested in juice cleanses. During a cleanse, individuals consume only vegetable and fruit juices, nut milks, and protein shakes for days, weeks, or months at a time. Some adopt this diet to reset their eating habits. They may also hope to gain a more balanced relationship and mindset with food or support certain organs of the body that aid in filtering toxins or digestion like the kidney, liver, and intestines. 

According to Sullivan, BLISS’s cleanses are unique because they place emphasis on low glycemic, all-vegetable juices, with a few sweeter, more fruity flavors, as well as protein drinks to keep customers energized. They aim to provide an experience of abundance rather than deprivation. “When you’re cleansing, you’re drinking the nutrient content of 3 to 5 pounds of produce per bottle every two hours – it’s actually pretty satisfying,” Sullivan said. 

BLISS’s story starts with a move to Red Hook in the late 1990s. Sullivan’s father, Ned, worked at the time for former Maine Governor Angus King, who now serves as the state’s junior senator. When Annie Sullivan was 2, he accepted a position as president of Scenic Hudson, and the family soon relocated to Red Hook. A quarter of a century later, Sullivan still holds that leadership role.

Sullivan’s mother, Tara, is also a prominent member of the community. From 2019 to 2021, she worked as the first female executive director of the New York State Bridge Authority. She also founded a non-profit organization, Historic Bridges of the Hudson Valley, that works to promote Hudson Valley bridge history. Tara continues to serve on its board of directors.

Among GO products sold at BLISS are mushroom liquid herbal supplements (photo by Michael Lachenmeyer).

When Annie Sullivan talks about Red Hook, her love for the community comes to life. “I spent my whole childhood in parks, in the woods, and running around outside or swimming in rivers and streams,” she reminisces. “I realized my senior year of high school that this is my favorite place in the world.”

When she graduated high school, she intended to pursue a career in medicine. She studied biology on a pre-med track at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. But, after struggling with organic chemistry and feeling spurred to action by the 2016 Presidential election, she switched to a major in political science and a minor in gender studies. 

This put her in the same social circles as Kelly, who was studying history at St. Lawrence. Both were just two months shy of graduation when they met, but according to Sullivan, they instantly clicked and started dating weeks later. 

After graduation, Sullivan moved back to Red Hook, and Kelly went to live with his family in the Bronx. Both found jobs far outside their major, with Kelly returning to a job he’d held in high school as a squash coach while Sullivan found work as a manager at a juice bar named Nourish.

Nourish, based at the same East Market location, was the direct predecessor of BLISS. And it was at Nourish that Sullivan learned the fundamentals of the juice and smoothie business. She quickly fell in love with the trade and was promoted from a part-time to full-time worker and then to manager. But when the Covid pandemic hit New York, her job came under threat. 

Eliza Gonzalez holds a BLISS strawberry banana smoothie (photo by Michael Lachenmeyer).

In the first half of 2020, the owner of Nourish got word of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s shut-down order, she decided to close Nourish. But Sullivan saw an opportunity. Perhaps, she could buy the business. “I thought as long as we work really hard, we will always have a job,” she said. 

Simultaneously, the pandemic ended Kelly’s job as a squash coach, and he quickly became a supporter of Sullivan’s idea. Together, the pair used savings they had put aside for graduate school, and with additional funds from a small business loan, they moved in together and bought the business. 

From June 9 to early September 2020, they continued operating under the name Nourish and delivered orders to customers from the curbside or from a small drive-thru window in the corner of the shop. 

Many BLISS drinks come in pastel Easter egg colors (photo by Emily Sachar).

Eventually, though, the couple sought to reestablish the enterprise in their own image. That September, they secured funding through a second small business loan and contracted the architectural firm MASS Design Group to redesign their juice and smoothie bar for the age of Covid. 

Sullivan and Kelly conferred with the architects and decided to build a wall that would expand the kitchen while eliminating seating space in the store. That way, customers could come in and order but wouldn’t linger, significantly reducing the risk of infection while simultaneously providing more space and comfort for those working in the back. 

When the renovations were finished, BLISS Juice + Smoothie Bar was born as customers know it today. The early months were grueling. “We’d get there at 3 a.m., start juicing, open at 10, close at 4, cleanup till 7, then do it all over again.” Today, the couple is grateful to work fewer than 50 hours a week. Yet, that evolution to a saner schedule came slowly and evolved only from experience, tenacity and a modicum of financial success.

John Martino, co-owner of Sol Smoothie Bar in Rhinebeck, remarked on BLISS’s role during the pandemic. “It was one of the only places you could really go to get things like acai bowls without driving all the way down to Poughkeepsie,” he said. 

Still, managing a business has meant Kelly and Sullivan have had to put other dreams on hold. Both once had ambitions of attending graduate school, and roughly a year ago, they even considered selling BLISS to pursue that dream. 

They spoke to potential buyers but could not find the right fit. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be, Sullivan avers. “I had this overwhelming moment of relief when the last person who was thinking about buying it pulled out because I realized I wasn’t done,” she said. “There were so many dreams I had for the business that I hadn’t had time to realize yet.” 

With BLISS’s fourth anniversary just over the horizon, Sullivan and Kelly are looking toward the future. Sullivan hopes to add a food truck to bring Bliss’s products to other communities around the Hudson Valley, while Kelly talks of expanding to additional brick-and-mortar locations throughout the region. 

Closing an interview with consideration of his ambitions for BLISS, Kelly said, “The greatest thing I could get from it all is the smile my customers give me every single day. That’s where BLISS comes from. It comes from thinking, being, and feeling the love in this small-town community.” 

One response to “From Covid Curb to Convivial Counter, Red Hook’s Bliss Juice + Smoothie Bar Readies for its Fourth Year”

  1. Amy Cutaia says:

    Go, no run, to Bliss and buy everything! It is ALL delicious. I cannot say enough good things about Bliss and Annie and Mike!

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