The limited-service, fast casual restaurant segment is seeing growth that outpaces the industry overall, and new breeds of health food restaurants and build-your-own salad concepts are the latest upstarts within this vibrant category.
Chicago-based Freshii, for example, hit triple-digit unit growth in only nine years, compared with 13 years for Subway, 19 for McDonald’s and two decades for Starbucks. Freshii founder Matthew Corrin cites health and wellness as a major consumer driver behind the expansion of his concept, which will have 200 units in 80 cities and 15 countries by the end of 2015. As Corrin pointed out to MSNBC, “You’re seeing the mass population understand the importance of healthy eating. You can’t eat burgers, fries and pizza every day.”
Freshii, Chopt and MAD Greens are among a fresh breed of salad-centric concepts that can easily be grafted onto the grocerant template in more settings. Some concepts feature “salad chefs” who do the mixing and tossing for customers, while others are completely DIY. These chains depend on fresh, high-quality ingredients, customization, and “not fast food” experiences as points of differentiation.
David Laborde, director of product development at Salata, a “Next Gen” salad bar based in Houston, relies on a “survival of the most desirable” strategy for menu development. “As a salad bar, we have no waiter feedback,” he says. “We use some display signs, and we keep everything ‘fresh, full and fluffy,’ so the product sells itself. We track what’s moving.”
Dan Long, Colorado-based MAD Greens co-founder and chief culinary officer, cites the demand for more personalized recipes as a big part of his success. “Our guests increasingly want to build their own meal, with the flavors and ingredients they want,” he says. On-trend ingredients and 20-plus salad dressings keep customers coming back: “We provide a wide variety ranging from the usual (ranch, Caesar, balsamic, etc.) to the more unique with bold flavors and non-traditional pairings,” he adds.
Mark Kulkis, chief executive officer of Chop Stop in Southern California, notes that his customers choose the DIY option more than half the time, from a menu that also includes house specialty salads. Kulkis says he treats menu development like “a game of survivor” and lets customers dictate additions of “media darlings like kale and quinoa.” The most popular ingredients remain, and the less popular get voted off to make room for new requests, he says.
- Dressing to impress with plenty of on-trend salad dressings in addition to the classics
- Signs that indicate “vegan,” “gluten-free” and “extra-spicy”
- Closely tracking supply and demand for menu inspiration