New York-based fast-casual restaurant Just Salad has built a reputation for not only serving healthy ingredients, but also for running sustainable operations. CEO Nick Kenner explained how these two efforts will unfold as the brand continues to grow.
Just Salad is currently experiencing rapid growth and plans to open nearly 20 stores this year. What is fueling this growth?
We plan to open nearly 20 additional company-owned restaurants by the end of this year. This expansion is happening in existing markets like Florida and the New York tri-state area.
We are seeing impressive success in the suburban and urban markets. Seeing the reaction of consumers in the new markets we have entered has been truly gratifying; many guests are truly amazed at how much they enjoy the product from a culinary perspective and how fresh a salad, bowl or wrap. And that price and brand are always relevant at the same time. A lot of consumers have this Trader Joe or Ikea reaction where they really like both the quality of the product and the transaction.
So take a neighborhood like Pembroke Pines, Florida, where the median income is about the same as the national average: our restaurant is booming. It’s significant because it shows our brand’s ability to take share in suburban markets, where there is obviously a huge amount of white space. So we evolved quite seamlessly from a purely urban concept to one that works just as well in the suburban landscape.
You mention “white space”. Does that mean you still see a lot of room for growth in your category overall?
Absoutely. I would say this is the first time since coffee in the 1990s that the restaurant industry has seen real category creation on a national scale, and it’s very exciting to be at the helm of that. Coffee has certainly solved the problem of caffeine on the go and the third place community, and the salad segment solves health on the go – and in our case, sustainability-conscious decisions on the go as well. Our category is now less than $1 billion and could grow to $20 billion over the next 10 years. Still much smaller than most other restaurant categories, but our category doesn’t have as many players. Better-for-you brands are really the next big category, and we continue to see more and more people abandon less healthy concepts like burger restaurants, or at least add healthier options to their rotation. It’s starting to happen fast.
Tell me about your product and your brand. How are they driving your growth?
Our product has never been better, more sought after or of higher quality than it is now. Over the past two years, we have made specific operational changes to deliver a menu that is best-in-class and irresistible. Take our roast chicken. It is marinated overnight on site, cooked several times a day, on site, and cut on a cutting board in front of the customer each time it is ordered. Two years ago it was served cold and in cubes. We have a renewed commitment to ensuring that every product we serve is best in class.
We don’t take shortcuts. That means homemade dressings, recipes from scratch, and products prepared daily – no cans, no additives. Our greens and produce are brought in whole – we hand cut whole romaine heads several times a day, wash them twice and dry them twice to create extra crispy romaine. We prepare our mashed avocado and our fresh pico de gallo throughout the day; we cut our own carrots, roast our own beets.
We are launching a new seasonal and permanent menu on March 24 which I am very proud of. In store, you will see our menu organized in a new way. We’ll have our signature salads – Crispy Chicken Poblano, Thai Chicken Crunch and Tokyo Supergreens – displayed on an “Iconic” menu; we will of course have the Classic salads, such as the Chicken Caesar; and we will have an “Earth Friendly” menu board displaying low carbon footprint salads, which are calculated and verified by a third party organization.
You are known for sustainability, but surely other brands have gone all out on ESG (Environment, Social and Governance). What is the Just Salad approach?
We want to change the way America consumes. Our company’s mission statement is to make everyday health and everyday sustainability possible. And we’re taking radical steps to fulfill that mission: We’re the first fast-casual concept to offer reusable packaging at scale through our Reusable Bowl program, founded in 2006. We were the first to eliminate beef from our menu, replacing it with vegetables. beef-based, then expand to other plant-based proteins like Daring Chicken and Violife Vegan Feta. We proactively seek partnerships that allow us to amplify our impact, such as our partnership with Zero Foodprint, which donated Zero Foodprint salad recipes to regenerative agriculture.
And then we’re doing innovative things to get customers interested in sustainable food, like eco-labeling on our digital menu and offering a climate dietary filter. We have eliminated virtually all plastic waste from our supply chain and we have a rock star sustainability manager to guide these efforts. we have just started.
So, in summary, we seek to make everyday health and sustainability irresistible, through exceptional flavor and freshness; rewarding, through rewards such as free toppings for our reusable bowl customers; and attainable, thanks to our accessible price.
It’s a fairly unique formula in our category, if not the whole space of the restaurant.
Tech-wise, what are you focusing on right now?
We’ve started 2022 off with a bang by relaunching the Just Salad mobile app with a significantly improved user interface. It’s a prettier and sleeker ordering experience, with unique features like one-click ordering, interactive nutrition and eco-labeling, the ability to filter menu items by food preference, and enhanced personalization . Behind the scenes, we own our technology stack and manage it internally, which makes us more agile, allows us to personalize the experience the way our customers like it, and improves our marketing and analytics capabilities.
I have never been so convinced of our brand and our growth potential. We’re passionate about promoting from within, so it’s also very exciting to be able to promote so many people at the operations and corporate level to positions they’ve always dreamed of and then see them flourish. We are ready for leadership in this category and I hope Just Salad will help our customers lead healthier lifestyles while reducing our customers’ environmental impact.