As wet car tires rolled along Thurman Avenue on a rainy Wednesday morning recently, 26-year-old Chelsea Bell shined the already-clean stainless steel counters inside Blended & Blessed to start a slow day of business.
Across the room, a menu in cursive font listed drinks with flavors like tiger lily tea, chocolate brownie batter shake or strawberries and cream coffee — offerings that don’t sound healthy, but are made with protein powder and other nutrition supplements.
Blended & Blessed is the new kid on the block in German Village. The storefront, which opened at the start of May and offers shakes, energy teas and nutrition coffees, took over the lease for a former Native Cold Pressed location through next July.
Ohio State University senior Camryn Colter, 21, runs the space as an independently owned and operated Herbalife Nutrition club, selling drinks made with dietary supplements produced by the Los Angeles-based company.
What is a “nutrition club?”
Tiny storefronts that advertise similar shakes, teas and coffees have started to dot more corners in Columbus neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs.
Like Blended & Blessed, these pop-up shops offering meal replacement drinks with sugary-sounding flavors often are Herbalife Nutrition clubs.
Most clubs may not be visibly affiliated with the controversial nutritional supplement company Herbalife Nutrition, which uses multi-level marketing model of independent salespeople, similar to Amway or Arbonne. Herbalife was investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for misleading money-making claims.
Behind the counter, nutrition clubs are stocked to the brim with Herbalife-branded white and green containers to use in menu items or to sell directly to customers.
The clubs are not permitted to serve as official Herbalife franchises, retailers or restaurants, however, according to its rules for nutrition clubs.
Herbalife places restrictions on distributors hoping to open a commercial club, including barring salespeople from advertising that they offer Herbalife products and recommending club operators tint their windows.
“It does make it hard, as an owner, to be like ‘I promise I am not shady. I am just trying to abide by the rules,’ ” Colter said.
Instead of operating as a retail establishment with a menu of products on sale, club operators can charge nutrition club membership fees as well as “consumption” fees for people drinking shakes or teas on club premises, said Humberto Calleja, Herbalife vice president for North America sales, events and promotions.
Anywhere from $12 to $16 at Blended & Blessed can get you a shake and tea combo.
While the company asks that nutrition clubs operate as a personal meeting space rather than a business of any sort, the line is blurry. It’s hard to differentiate Blended & Blessed from any other shop selling drinks or treats.
Calleja said the nutrition clubs make up nearly 70% of the company’s annual global sales, which were $5.5 billion in 2020. More than 70,000 clubs exist globally, with 9,900 of them in the United States. Herbalife trades on the New York Stock Exchange.
More than 30 nutrition clubs can be found in Columbus and its surrounding suburbs, according to Nutrition Club Network, a website that maps geographic locations of Herbalife Nutrition clubs. Some have been around for as long as four years, while others — like Blended & Blessed — opened in the last year, during the pandemic.
“I initially struggled because we had to introduce who we are, what we do, to the community,” Colter said. “I think everyone has their own opinions on multi-level marketing, and so the act of defending what we’re doing, it was kind of hard at first.”
Herbalife and other companies that operate with a similar business model have been around for decades. Through multi-level marketing, people who are not considered employees sell products for a company and often recruit others to sell products as well.
In 2016, Herbalife came under fire after the FTC ordered it to pay $200 million to former independent distributors who lost money. Although the FTC didn’t label Herbalife as a pyramid scheme, it ordered the company to restructure its business model from the top down so that less priority would be placed on independent distributors enlisting people to sell products.
Although Blended & Blessed has a website with an online ordering form, most Herbalife Nutrition clubs are more under the radar, maintaining their presence on Instagram and Facebook.
Colter said she is an independent distributor for Herbalife because she and her family like its products, not because she hopes to climb to the top. She doesn’t feel attached to how Herbalife does business.
She added that selling Herbalife products and operating a nutrition club are not the endgame for her.
“Never in my life have I ever been like, ‘Herbalife is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” said Colter, who is studying sports management and nonprofit management. Blended & Blessed plans to donate a portion of profits to a different charitable cause each month; donations in June will go to LGBTQ youth advocacy organization The Trevor Project.
Colter says she’s willing to answer questions anyone might have.
“All we can do is be truthful, honest, transparent at all times,” Colter said. “We don’t have high-rise bars. You can literally see everything we’re doing.”
Weight loss, healthy living and COVID-19
Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian at Wexner Medical Center, said social media apps can be impactful when it comes to the culture around dieting.
The pandemic has caused a resurgence in people searching online and offline for methods to lose weight, which sometimes leads to what she believes are unsound solutions.
She said she pauses in recommending products like the ones sold by Herbalife to patients.
“Supplements are not regulated, which has pros or cons,” Weinandy said. “You or I could make any of these products in our basement or garage and sell them for that reason.”
More broadly, meal replacement products can offer short-term results, but often don’t continue to work in the long term. She said lifestyle changes — exercising, adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet and cutting out processed foods instead of introducing meal replacements or skipping meals altogether — are more sustainable.
“I always tell people, ‘You don’t have to do anything glamorous.’ Everybody thinks they need to go on some programs, spend a lot of money, follow some strict regiments, and that’s really just not necessary,” Weinandy said.