garden fresh practices fresh business principles

Thanks to my column-writing gig with QSR Magazine, I recently got an insiders’ look at a remarkable company, Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp.  You probably know them as Souplantation, the 110+ unit salad and soup buffet concept, or Sweet Tomatoes, the name they operate under outside of Southern California.

I’ve always loved their restaurant concept and so I appreciated the opportunity to take a look behind the curtain.   What I found was a fun team, a smart business approach, and some fresh takeaways for all companies:

1. When it comes to corporate personnel, don’t underestimate the value of front line experience.

Many of the people on the corporate staff at Garden Fresh started their careers on the company’s restaurant floors.  Co-president Ken Keane got his start as a Souplantation restaurant manager, for example, while a couple of restaurant dishwashers worked their way up to roles as the company’s Culinary Director and Vice President of Business Development.

Not only does such a track record produce a deep passion for the brand and the distinct wisdom which results from longevity with the company, but also an intuitive understanding of what customers want and a careful eye toward in-restaurant execution to shape every decision.  The organization seems nimbler and more focused because it’s run by former front-line employees.

2. Understand the difference between a product and a brand.

The company just introduced a new restaurant concept (read a great write-up about Souplantation Express by my QSR Magazine editor Sam Oches.)  The way the company developed the concept reflects their understanding of the difference between a brand idea and a product offering.

The new concept, in which a customer points to the ingredients he or she wants while an employee builds the selections into a salad, is a departure from the signature all-you-can-eat buffet set-up of the chain.   Souplantation Express was inspired by the many you-pick-we-make salad QSRs which have grown in popularity in New York City over the last several years and are now popping up everywhere.  But as CEO Michael Mack explains, “Salads are products; other restaurants don’t have a concept.

The company is using Souplantation Express to reinforce – and to grow – the company’s brand identity in “choice.”  To that end, they offer over 30 salad ingredients to choose from as well as five soup selections.  Plus customers are not limited to a certain number of ingredients and they’re not charged by the weight of the completed salad, common practices among most salad restaurants.  All of these factors increase operational complexity and are likely to wreak havoc on food costs, but the company believes delivering their brand identity, not simply a product, will make the business a success.

3. Use social media as a business tool.

The way CEO Mack explains it, social media is a like a “mirror image.”  It reveals what you really are, how you’re really perceived – and the company embraces that sometimes harsh reality.

Garden Fresh doesn’t simply use social media as a way to interact with guests – although it does have over 15,000 followers on Twitter (three times as many as Burger King, which has 10 times the number of units), and more impressively the company follows over 15,000 people (for most QSRs, the number of followers dwarfs the number of people they follow.)

The folks at Garden Fresh see value in using social media to round out their other market research efforts and to increase transparency within the company and with the outside world. Social media enables the company to “get more well-rounded information, it puts everyone on their best behavior, and it ensures everyone has the same information.”

It’s difficult to determine the impact of these principles on business growth and the bottom line since Garden Fresh is a private company.  But, chain-wide sales have been reported at $300MM, which translates into a $2.6MM+ PSA (Panera Bread’s is around $2.1MM).  They haven’t closed any stores recently and in early 2009 they reported annual same stores sales had increased 3.2%, which is pretty impressive given the chain’s concentration in California, a state hit hard by the recession.

So from what I can tell, Garden Fresh’s approach is, well, fresh, and worth learning from.

other impressive companies:

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