WASILLA — The Perfect Start coffee cart owner Tina Sena describes her tie-dye, neon-colored Red Bull smoothies in two different ways.
The first, with its distinct rainbow swirls, sprinkles and candy toppings, is "art in a cup."
The second — an ode to the 24 ounces of syrup, smoothie mix and a can of Red Bull topped with whipped cream in each smoothie — she jokingly describes as "diabetes in a cup."
Either way, she's found a viral hit in the brightly colored drinks. Colorful Red Bull smoothies (and their counterparts, Red Bull Italian sodas) have been cropping up on a number of coffee cart menus here, but Sena, 29, claims hers came first, inspired by colorful layered drinks she tried in Las Vegas and Hawaii.
Sena came up with the drinks last year in an effort to stand out among the coffee shacks that dot almost every street corner in the Mat-Su.
Other shops have taken the idea without giving her credit, she said to her dismay. She's secretive about how the drinks are made. No one is allowed into the four coffee stands she owns except for the baristas. She declined to say what specifically goes into the drinks or what the trick is for making the tie-dye designs.
"Magic," she joked Thursday. "It's our trade secret."
There's no limit to the flavors you can get for the 24-ounce smoothie and no sign listing what's available. Sena said that's intentional — she wants the baristas to help people come up with ideas that suit them.
They can make anything, said barista Kaylee Price, 21. White peach and lime is popular, as is a blue raspberry and green apple combination. Cotton candy, pineapple-coconut-banana, and raspberry-peach-pineapple-passion fruit are also favorites.
"You'd be surprised what you can combine," said Price, noting that one customer regularly orders a pear and lavender smoothie.
Sena said they sell 200 to 300 of the $6 smoothies each day, with more on weekends and during the summer. She had to build a storage shed next to her stand on the Parks Highway to hold extra drink ingredients, in part because of smoothie sales.
Sena said people will often come up and show baristas pictures of exotic colors they've seen on social media and ask for the drinks. A few people have even driven north from Anchorage, according to manager Brooke Nerup, 20. She said many people are in awe of the drinks when they finally get one.
"We get people who take pictures, put it on Snapchat and drive away," she said.
After about half an hour, the drinks start to melt and the colors muddle. But there's something about the drink that keeps people coming back.
"It's art in a cup," Sena said. "It puts a smile on people's faces."