MADISON — After five years in sunny California, Jonathan Bone and Justin McLaughlin returned to their hometown, bringing with them a slice of the Golden State. In a bowl, that is: an acai bowl, topped with colorful berries, tropical fruits and crunchy seeds or granola.
With Bone’s background in restaurants and McLaughlin’s strength in finance, they brainstormed about ways to work together. Life Bowls was born.
“I was like, ‘Why not do acai bowls, because they were real popular when we were out in California and nobody knew what they were in 2013, 2014 around here,’ ” McLaughlin said.
Today, the two Daniel Hand graduates have two food trucks on the road, one devoted to parking on School Street, another that travels to events, plus a new storefront at 757 Boston Post Road, which has a line out the door at times.
“It got to a point where, if we’re going to open a spot it’s got to be in Madison because this is the place that people seem to be enjoying it,” said 33-year-old McLaughlin.
The menu offers extensive healthful options plus local faves: Strawberry Peel’D, Purple Rain, PB & Whey and Popeye smoothies; Nutty, Kiwi’s Playhouse and Green Monstah acai bowls; Beach Bum, Playa Pitaya and Pink Cadillac pitaya bowls; Old Saybrook’s Ashlawn Farm coffee and a variety of toasts made on Fitness bread from New Haven’s Whole G Bakery.
The menu is vegan, and gluten-free options are available with the toasts. The most popular toast, according to McLaughin, is Viva la Vegan topped with a savory vegan pesto, avocado slices, sweet cherry tomatoes, all drizzled with a balsamic glaze.
“Basically, our menu’s adaptable in that it can fit most dietary needs and restrictions, so it’s completely dairy free … and any item can be made gluten free or vegan just with a few modifications,” said 33-year-old Bone.
Customer Christina Kostek’s youngest daughter, Julia, has a “severe nut allergy” and is always concerned with cross contamination. She frequently orders from Life Bowls and said this has never been a problem.
“They are very compliant with people’s allergies,” the Killingworth resident said. “That is something that is really, really key. I know for a fact they are successful in being sensitive to people who have certain food allergies.”
Most days, customers at Life Bowls storefront will find Bone behind the counter mixing, blending and creating orders, McLaughlin is behind the scenes, working on the financial end. Both entrepreneurs live in Branford.
“We really teamed up both of our skills in a way where we could grow this thing out the best way that we knew. It just kept building and building every year until we got here,” he said while sitting at Life Bowls’ window countertop overlooking the goings-on in downtown Madison.
The 400-square-foot space is sublet from Prive Swiss Fitness. Interior custom woodwook, complete with tables, bench seating and a countertop area with stools, was handcrafted by Madison’s Handlavet. Additional seating is available outside, which Life Bowls shares with Prive Swiss.
“We’re two separate businesses, but we complement each other,” McLaughlin said. “That was the whole idea. We both set our spaces up together to make sure we work entwined with each other, but we’re not affiliated.”
Prive Swiss Director of Operations Dana Brown echoed this sentiment.
“It’s worked out really well,” the Clinton resident said. “They’ve been extremely busy and successful and our businesses complement each other really well.”
Brown said many of the fitness studio’s clients stop by Life Bowls after finishing up a workout.
“It’s a nice treat people look forward to after their class — go down and get a healthy smoothie,” Brown said.
The go-to smoothie for this personal trainer, Pilates and group exercise instructor is the PB & Whey, she said. “I like the extra protein. It’s almond milk, peanut butter, banana and I add cacao powder for an extra zing,” she said.
Pilates Instructor Kristine Ciardello said she enjoys stopping in after work to indulge in a Hartford Kaler smoothie made with pineapple, kale, banana and coconut with a suggested boost of fresh ginger. She said a lot of Prive Swiss clients frequent the spot.
“I love Life Bowls,” she said in a text message. “Hard working entrepreneurs making healthy, high quality products in a fun and social environment. They quickly assimilated into the Madison community making it a go-to hang out for all age groups.”
McLaughlin and Bone have come a long way since they introduced the food truck.
“We started the truck in 2014. It was actually around that time … all the controversy in town about the food trucks and we were just getting our food truck started that fall,” he said. “Our first day was at the Madison Food Truck Appreciation Day and instantly we had an audience. It was a nice way to start it.”
McLaughlin said new customers were intrigued by the exotic-sounding offerings.
“The acai bowls, back then … we were constantly explaining to (customers), ‘This is a what it is, it’s a Brazilian berry that is loaded with antioxidants and omegas and it’s really good for your skin, your gut health, all these benefits. It’s tasty and it’s good for you,” McLaughlin said. “Once people had it, they were hooked.”
Megan Stephanowski said sister, Lauren, encouraged a visit to the Life Bowls food truck early on.
“You have the people who worked on the truck and are now working at the storefront and I’ve always stalked the truck since it opened, so it’s definitely a cult going on that’s growing every day,” the 16-year-old said.
Now she is an employee, greeting customers and working on the register. Her favorite, the Maui Wowie acai bowl, is made with acai, blueberries, mango, pineapple, banana, lime and coconut water, topped with pineapple, blueberries, goji berries, sunflower seeds, superfood cereal and honey.
Christina Kostek said her whole family has been loyal followers of Life Bowls since the start.
Her daughter, Camille, a globetrotting Sports Illustrated model, has been a fan since the beginning, she said.
“She’s been following Life Bowls,” Christina Kostek said. “Literally anytime she comes home she wants to find them. She wants to see if they’re open.”
Scrolling through Life Bowls Instagram, it is obvious the feeling is mutual. When Camille Kostek was in town for a Memorial Day visit, she stopped in, ordered her favorite and signed a copy of the SWIM 2019 Sports Illustrated with her as the cover girl.
“Life Bowls — my OG Acai Bowl spot! love you all!” she wrote on the cover.
“Eat your Life Bowls kids, who knows where you might end up. All jokes aside we couldn’t be happier for the tremendous success of one of our original supporters. Keep doing your thing @camillekostek, you rock!” the Instagram caption said.
Camille Kostek’s favorite is the “very berry bowl with pitaya as the base,” she writes in a text message. “I love my bowls full of toppings so this one is perfect for me! Fruity and fresh AND the pitaya blend is the prettiest pink.
“I can’t come home to CT without a stop to life bowls! There is no place like is around town.”
“She seeks them out and she customizes things with them,” her mother said. “They’ve always been a fan of each other, so it’s been kind of cool to see their business grow and then her succeed, because they’re mutual fans.”
Christina Kostek, who grew up on St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands and is the manager of the Guilford’s Planet Fitness, said Life Bowls’ choices are delicious and healthy. While she said she likes to customize her order, her favorite is the hot pink colored Playa Pitaya, a blend of pitaya, mango, pineapple, banana, apple juice and coconut water topped with kiwi, mango, goji berries, granola and coconut.
“Any tropical fruits that are brightly colored naturally have antioxidants and are great for your skin,” she said. “They’re just so many health benefits to pitaya and pineapple has an enzyme in that helps with muscle recovery. It really goes hand and hand with exercise, actually, and then it’s delicious, of course.”
The hard work and success of Life Bowls is something Christina Kostek said she has been happy to be a part of.
“I enjoy seeing small town people do well — the kids be successful, my own, and other people’s,” she said.