By Vanessa Packer
Photography by Kirill Was Here
“I COULD STAND OUTSIDE, THROW A ROCK AND I BET YOU I WOULD HIT A JUICE BAR,” Melvin Major Jr. muses over cayenne and ginger spiced wheatgrass shots at his namesake juice bar and restaurant in The Dream Downtown. Before opening Melvin’s Juice Box with restaurant legend Serge Becker, Melvin was at the forefront of the juice and health movement in New York City. His resume lists the all time OG juice bars that have remained open despite the more recent wave of delivery juice cleanses and fanaticism for the cold pressed method. For more than twenty years, Melvin has created original and thoughtful blends that earned him a significant following at the helm of Integral Yoga and Lifethyme Market. One such juice, The Sweet Christine, an homage to regular juicer and yogi Christy Turlington, still remains on the menu at Lifethyme, long after he has left. Now, with his successful juice bars and restaurants in the trendy neighborhoods of Soho and Meatpacking, Melvin focuses on keeping the good vibes present for his employees and patrons. bonberi sat down with the incredibly warm and gregarious juice maestro as he continues, as he always has, on “spreadin’ the love.”
Where did your journey with health and well-being begin?
I first started juicing over at Integral Yoga. I was there for 4 years, then Whole Foods on Prince and then I was at Lifethyme for about 18 years, but it was mostly for the customers and their smiling faces. I had my own little connection with them, it was perfect.
Were you healthy growing up?
I grew up down in South Carolina on little island calling Hilton Head. We would farm everything. Eight city blocks of farming, everything from peanuts in the shell, corn, collard greens, kale, turnips, spinach, everything! I grew up with an awareness of natural foods in me.
Did you juice down there?
No juicing. That only happened in New York.
When did you discover juicing?
I discovered juicing when I was 23 years old. I moved to New York when I was 11. Country bumpkin coming to New York with a bad boy side. I had a different type of lifestyle, but I knew it wasn’t me. When I came to New York, I was in Harlem. Once I got tired of the street life, I got into Integral Yoga and it was so beautiful I forgot about my street lifestyle, everything. It was never a part of me, I don’t think it’s a part of anyone. The lack of jobs make people do things that they need to do in order to live. I had a wonderful time at Integral Yoga and that’s where I really discovered juicing. They threw me back there and I started messing around, next thing I know I was making nice juices and remembering recipes. I was meeting lots of nice people and I thought, “You know what, I like doing this.” I always showed up to work with smiles. I never brought my problems in and put them on other people.
Where does your inspiration come from when you create juices and smoothies?
Sometimes I wonder myself. I just pay around, make little changes, add ingredients. I keep going and it just comes out perfect, like the Sweet Christine I did for Christy Turlington, now we call it Sweet and Dandy, but it’s still on the menu at Lifethyme.
How did Melvin’s Juice Box come about?
I wanted to be a part of something, a team, and create something I knew was going to be around and stay open. Serge Becker and I spoke for three years, always meeting up and talking. My spirit told me it was there. I had other offers, but I like where I’m at. I love being a part of that team.
What was it with the juicing having worked in it for so long, how have you noticed it improving peoples lives, even your own life?
Juicing, you see a lot of people come into it for health reasons or because they are into working out. The moms would come in get a drink, chill out, socialize. I like the vibe of it. I love spreading love.
What is a day in the life of Melvin?
I get up in the morning, have some lemon water, do my prayer in my head of what I want my day to be. It’s more of a meditation, positive thoughts. I get to work and greet everyone, I make sure I really greet each and every person. I used to get to work around 6am, but after a few years it’s enough of that. Now, I get to work around 9am. I love working behind the counter, but it’s a small space back there and the people that work here they got it down, so they prefer me to be out of the way. I go around talk to the customers, watch the operation, spread the love.
Do you have a juice in the morning?
I have a juice after the lemon water, I have some wheatgrass because it helps my back. I have a fishing wound that hurts me still, and that helps. We have wheatgrass shots with cayenne and ginger, it’s the real deal. You have one of those and you just pop!
What does lunch look like?
I eat pretty much one time a day, I’m slim, I do one big meal like dinner. I don’t feel like I need to eat a big breakfast. I skateboard like crazy, I love it. I’m always in Prospect Park on Saturdays around the farmers market. It’s the best. Union Square Market used to be the best until I moved to Brooklyn, convenience is important. I love plants, so I always buy them at the farmers market. I have a big collection at home, maybe 42 all together.
Would you consider yourself mostly raw, mostly vegan?
I did raw, 100% for a while, which I would never do again. I think a raw food diet is mostly for people who are obese, or if you have some kind of health condition. If you are slim you don’t need to be 100% raw, you don’t eat much and everything is being pushed out. In the wintertime your body needs some heat. Also, in a lot of raw food preparation people add vinegars and nuts so it can really heavy, and sit in your body for a while. I would do raw foods, and steam fish on the side. Something warm on the side. For me, I have no problem with that.
What does dinner look like?
I love fish. I drink my green juices a lot, so I don’t go home and cook up a big bunch of vegetables. I make just enough to get the roughage in, then I make rice, beans and fish. Something like that.
Do you have any indulgences?
Bud, ha. It’s natural and I like relaxing. I must say, my body craves meat, I’m an O blood type, and once in a very blue moon I have a small piece of meat. It doesn’t have to be anything big, just a little piece. We do have canines after all. Apes eat leaves and vegetables but then they’ll hunt down another animal and eat it to get what they need. Afterwards, they go right back to being vegetarian. I watch a lot of nature programs, so I look at lot of things like that. I would never judge anyone. Some people need it, some people don’t. I do a grass fed organic steak from Whole Foods. I do a little spiritual prayer over it ,and clean it. I don’t look at it as bad. A lot of people grew up on it, and they are good. I try to tell people even if you can’t get organic, go get your stuff. A carrot is still a carrot. You can tell when someone doesn’t eat vegetables, their skin doesn’t shine and they don’t have the vitamins they need.
So which do you put a precedent on, local or organic?
Organic. I wish everyone could go organic. I think the big organic markets should lower their prices. I mean one lemon for $1, it’s crazy. It has to start somewhere, it should start at the top. I try to buy local organic as much as possible, but depending on the season it can be hard. I try to support local farmers, it’s very important.
You’re old school, you’ve been juicing for decades, now it’s so trendy. What do you think of all the growth in the juice industry?
I could stand outside and throw a rock and I bet you I would hit a juice bar. Some juice bars I’ve gone to, they keep their vegetables on the floor, and it’s dirty, and there is bacteria. You have to respect the vegetables. Some other shops like Starbucks should focus on their coffee and leave green juice out of it. They don’t go together. you have some bodegas doing it, they should stay out of it too because they are not clean enough to do juices.
What should people look for in a really good juice?
For me, I want to go into a spot where I don’t greet people first, I want to be greeted, I want to feel the energy. I look around and make sure it’s organized, and the stainless steel is clean. I want everything to look fresh and welcoming. A quick turnover is important too, you don’t want things sitting on the shelf. Anywhere I go, if there isn’t a line or it’s not moving fast I won’t eat there, because I don’t know how long the food has been sitting there, I like to know it’s fresh. I like the communication, I don’t want to go into a shop, pull a juice out of the refrigerator, one person there. I want to go to a spot where I feel the community, and the energy.
Cold press or centrifugal?
The centrifugal machine allows you to get the fiber, and keeps it flowing, keeps it open. You want that. I prefer that, the old school grand mama way. The pressed juices may be ok, but you’re not getting the fiber in that. I don’t want any juice on the shelf passed two days, it’s not right. The HPP where the juice will last you 30 days, 15 days, it’s not right. It’s not longer living at that point. Hardcore people that want to pay a premium for their juice should find a juice bar that will give you what you really came for.
We like that you only stock ripe bananas.
Yes, some people think when bananas get dark nobody wants it, but that’s when the banana is at it’s best. If you don’t want it to get too ripe, take it apart and freeze it. I don’t want to give people green bananas. It’s either ripe frozen or ripe fresh. Eating a green banana is like eating half cooked rice, you get lumps in your stomach, bloating and gas.
What’s your opinion of juice cleanses?
We offer it at Melvin’s. I think juice cleanses are good, but for me, if i’m gonna do a juice cleanse I need a salad too, I need something to hold me over. You can do a raw cleanse and have a salad. Also, you should chew your juice. That’s what you want to practice.
Do you have a non-negotiable for the day?
I can’t give up spreading love. I have to do it every second, more then anything, it’s so important. The energy has to be correct. I give a lot of hugs. Touch is important, people need to be touched.
Is there a philosophy behind Melvin’s Juice Box?
We just believe in making people feel at home, feel the love. All walks of life. The same type of love I receive, I give back. Everyone should spread love.