News at WilmU

A Healthy Family Business

After an overnight move from Pennsylvania to Charlotte, alumna Caitlyn Eckles formed what is now a thriving franchising enterprise. 

Caitlyn “Kat” Eckles is into — way into — healthy eating, and her favorite juice drink, a half-banana, half-avocado mixture, is “The Intense One.” Which seems appropriate, since “intense” seems the perfect adjective for Eckles’ general approach to life. Consider: She is a 32-year-old Wilmington University graduate and mother of five who operates, with her husband, a highly successful franchising operation and who, four years ago, moved from Southeastern Pennsylvania to Charlotte, North Carolina – deciding on and executing the move in one day!  

That somewhat impulsive act was admittedly a bit of a change from what until that point had been an ordered and upwardly-mobile corporate career track for the then-growing Eckles clan. The family, which then included only two children, had moved to West Chester after her husband, Landon, was named manager for his company’s Philadelphia District. Kat, meanwhile, was content — sort of — to be a stay-at-home mom who supported her husband’s career.  

Then, one day in July 2014, they were on their boat on Blue Marsh Lake, near Reading, Pennsylvania, and the talk turned to careers, lifestyle and the weather. Landon had just come home from a long trip and, after spending years traveling internationally, he was ready for a career change, something that would allow more time with his growing family. 

Kat, who was pregnant with their third child, had been a tomboy in her youth. She enjoyed the outdoors and she had captained the lacrosse team and played soccer in high school. That led to an interest in wellness and healthy eating. The birth of her first child, a daughter, in 2007, ramped up her interest in nutrition and the benefits of an organic, plant-heavy diet. What’s more, while taking WilmU courses in Psychology, the self-described former Taco Bell addict had begun studying for a health coach certification from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. 

Why not, the couple wondered, combine Landon’s business background with Kat’s passion for lean eating and organic juicing? Thus was Clean Juice, their now very successful franchising operation, conceived.

As the boat drifted lazily on the lake, the discussion turned to a location for their new venture. Kat, who was adopted, had grown up in Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, and Landon had spent his high school and college years in the Keystone State. They met while both were attending Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Despite this shared geographical history, neither had really come to terms with the cold and snow of the Northeast. “And we got feet of snow that year,” remembers Kat. 

They were somewhat familiar with Charlotte, North Carolina, since some of Landon’s family had lived there. They knew the cost of living there was lower than the Philadelphia area, and the weather — ah, the weather. Average annual snowfall for the Tar Heel State’s largest city: a measly 2.4 inches. Comfort index: 64 — 10 points above the national average. It also has a vibrant economy and population, attracting many millennials. 

What’s more, as devout Christians, the Eckleses were attracted to the non-denominational Elevation Church,
which has nine locations in the Charlotte area. So, it was decided: they would start their new business in Charlotte.

The decisions to change careers and locations made, the couple turned the boat to shore, headed home and packed up that evening. The next day they moved to Charlotte, bought a house on Lake Norman, and immediately got down to business. They opened their first Clean Juice location, in Birkdale Village, an open-air shopping center in Huntersville, North Carolina, on their eighth wedding anniversary — June 5, 2015. One year later, they began franchising the locations. Today, there are more than 100 units in 15 states.

Kat Eckles explains that many of their franchisees are millennials. “We get a lot of couples,” she says, “and there’s one that’s owned by three women who are best friends.”

The Eckleses and their management team select the sites, negotiate leases, and give the new franchise owners the juice recipes. That’s followed by “Clean Juice University” — a three-week course in company products and philosophy.

Clean Juice uses only all-organic produce and whole food sweeteners such as honey, dates and pure maple syrup. The menu includes fruit and vegetable smoothies, protein smooths, acai bowls and cold-pressed juices. The idea behind incorporating fresh juice into one’s diet, Kat explains, is to flood the body with vitamins and minerals from organic produce. She says that using non-organic produce would be counterproductive because that would add potentially harmful chemicals into the body’s system.

For people who aren’t fond of fruits and vegetables, she says, the juices are a great way to introduce more of those nutrients into their diets. And, she says, those who try Clean Juice products get fast results. “It’s amazing how people will start drinking one of our juices every morning and feel a great difference right away,” she says.

Clean Juice also offers juice cleanse plans for those who want to rid their bodies of toxins. Eckles says a quarterly juice cleanse with the right balance of produce can be a natural reset for the body.

Beth Ellis is among the more enthusiastic of Clean Juice’s franchisees. She and her husband were among the first to sign on, and they now have two stores, in Greensboro and Chapel Hill, and hope to open a third in Raleigh sometime this year.

“I was attracted to the business after hearing about Kat’s journey in opening the stores, and the organic certification,” Ellis says. “And the Clean Juice blueprint is laid out and Kat and her team support and encourage you on the journey,” Ellis says.

She too has a young family, but like Eckles, she seems to revel in her busy schedule. “I absolutely love being in my stores, interacting with guests and employees, and the organized chaos that comes with owning two stores and raising three daughters,” she says.

Clean Juice is diversifying, recently adding a lifestyle website, Well, Happy & Kind, which addresses those three subjects through products and guest editorials. There are now 22 corporate employees (including Kat’s brother, Brennan Kerr, who is director of real estate) in Charlotte and 100 in-store corporate employees.

“We have a great team who are super passionate,” says Kat. The company promotes an ethos of body, mind and spirit, employing Bible verses in much of their corporate literature. The Clean Juice motto comes from 3 John 1:2: “Dear Friend, I hope all is well with you and that you are healthy in body as you are strong in spirit.”

Corporate employees also receive free gym memberships. “We find that they enjoy going to the gym before or after going to work,” Kat says, “because it helps them relieve stress.”

No matter how demanding the business is, Kat’s children are a priority. The Eckles brood now includes three girls and two boys, ranging in age from 1 to 11. “I make sure I drop the kids off at their schools in the morning, and I pick them up three days a week,” she says. 

Sometimes they accompany her to work. “Our 10- and 11-year-olds come often, especially in the summer,” she says. “And I occasionally will bring one of my toddlers if they are really wanting to be with mom that day. My 1-year-old came with me from two weeks to about three months. Our home office staff is really close to our kids, so that helps.”

At night, she pops in an exercise DVD and gets a quick workout. Then, she says, “I pack lunches, lay out clothes — including my own — and set the coffee maker to start automatically in the morning. After the kids are in bed, I also tie up any loose ends for work so that I don’t feel like I have to rush to get on email first thing in the morning.”

She credits Wilmington University for much of her skill in multi-tasking. Taking most of her courses online, she completed credits for a degree in Psychology in 2009. Why Psychology? “It’s something you can utilize in business and really throughout your life,” she says.

“I loved Wilmington University,” she adds. “It was a great experience. I learned a lot and I was able to stay at home and support my husband’s career while getting a degree.”

Says Dr. Eileen Donnelly, the University’s vice president of Enrollment Management: “Kat mentions her Wilmington University education in her profiles and when she shares how she prepared for leading a very successful business. The University provides great flexibility when offering academic programs, and this convenience enabled Kat to continue her learning and development while raising her children.”

The entire Eckles family is ecstatic in their new southern home, and the word “love” pops up often when Kat talks about Charlotte. “We absolutely love everything about the area,” she says. “We love our church. We love going out on Lake Norman on the weekends. We also love what a young, entrepreneurial city Charlotte is. The people of the community really embrace fresh ideas and support people that are following their dreams.”

While the number of Clean Juice franchises continues to grow, Kat isn’t quite ready to make a lifetime commitment to the business. “Who knows? We may do something else eventually,” she says. “We love what we’re doing, but we’re still young.”

And, of course, there are those leisurely, thought-provoking cruises on Lake Norman. WU

– Bob Yearick 

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