At a time when garnering “likes” holds as much weight as flavor and value, fast-casual restaurants have increasingly crafted their menus with an eye towards hashtags and shares. “Social media is huge for restaurants,” says Mike Murphy, general manager of the Downtown Sarasota SoFresh, the area’s fast-casual newcomer. “Your image on social media platforms allows you to connect with customers on a personal level,” he continues. For SoFresh, whose social media profiles try to correlate their food with the youth, beauty and effortless vivacity of their models, it’s buzzwords like vegan, gluten-free, organic, non-GMO, kale and cold-pressed they hope to snag their customers with. But behind the buzzwords and the subliminal promise of being cool, SoFresh aims to provide health-conscious diners something tangible, tasty and fresh, something to make them feel well even if the menu seems a little #trendy.

And this pursuit permeates every facet of the SoFresh menu, highlighted by its offering of bowls. Of the bowl format’s recent rise in popularity, Murphy believes “bowls give you the ability to compound flavors, [whereas] on a plate the flavors can be inconsistent.” The SoFresh bowls come either preconfigured or as a build-your-own, and unlike many upstart bowl-eries whose offerings are practically ready-made, SoFresh has more of a cook-to-order style. The bowls arrive topped with ample portions of hot-off-the-skillet protein choices both animal and plant-based, including non-GMO and antibiotic-free chicken breast, grass-fed choice beef, Gulf shrimp, wild-caught ahi or salmon, and organic tofu. Beneath the protein is a well-portioned assortment of healthy whole grains, vibrant greenery, vegetable toppings and a selection of savory sauces. One early favorite amongst early adopters of the SoFresh brand is the Power Bowl with salmon. It features both quinoa and brown rice, carrots, kale, almonds, raisins, goat cheese and a kale-basil pesto. The tender cut of salmon, pan-seared with salt and pepper and zero ostentation, sits atop the hearty mound of ingredients and provides a great first bite before the fork snags some kale and grains. By the time the raisins, almonds and carrots have joined the festivities, the bowl becomes a hop-scotch of textures and flavor profiles, all held together by the creamy, salty goat cheese. This is a well-balanced meal that includes myriad savory flavors, a feel-good blend of protein, carbs and fiber, and enough minerals to skip your daily vitamin (consult with physician). It’s filling but not bloating, simple but not bland, salty but not thirst-inducing.

The cucumber-mint-limeade refreshes without the sugar content, so skip the soda fountain. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

Should diners have to quench their thirst, however, SoFresh has an answer. Forgoing the usual sugar dispensary known as the soda fountain, SoFresh has opted for an assortment of frescas and cold-brewed teas. Concocted in-house, they contain very little or no added sugar at all. The cucumber-mint-limeade fresca looks and tastes more like a cold-pressed juice than a steeped drink, and the flecks of mint floating around in it give it the look of a potent elixir, though it only promises to refresh and hydrate in ways that battery-acid sodas never will. The fresca is almost as rich in flavor and nutrition as the kale tonic juice, another unsweetened elixir that includes cold-pressed kale, romaine, spinach, ginger, apple, lemon, celery and cucumber. The apple provides just enough natural sugar to take some of the bite out of the ginger while the lemon perks up some of the earthiness of the kale, romaine and spinach. In keeping with the sugar-free motif, SoFresh also offers a pair of smoothies that contain no sugar, no ice and no powdered fillers. The banana and date smoothie is an unpretentious, five-ingredient blend of banana, date, almond milk, almond butter and flax seed. Like the bowls, the smoothie packs all of the flavor of its overly processed competition without their gastric gravitas—perfect for a hot day when a cold, light, drinkable meal replacement can help combat the punishment of a hot Sarasota afternoon.

Protein options abound for any bowl or salad, including grass-fed steak, seared organic tofu, Beyond Sausage and peeled Gulf Shrimp.Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

Maybe the SoFresh menu looks a little like that of any other fast-casual restaurant, but the food remains unabashedly true to the name. “We want our food to really walk the walk,” says Murphy—not that it hurts to talk the talk. For example, if someone like rapper J. Cole, who Murphy once made a vegan bowl for, happens to share a picture of his SoFresh meal on social media and FOMO-fever ensues, so be it. 

SoFresh, 1455 2nd Street, Sarasota,