Denver-based Mad Greens turned 10 late last year, with 12 restaurants and plans to open another dozen in 2015. The fast-casual salad chain will make its first forays outside Colorado this year, expanding into two as-yet unnamed states.
As the company doubles in size it will also double its employee base, which has grown to 250 since founders Marley Hodgson and Dan Long opened the first Mad Greens restaurant in December 2004.
We talked to Hodgson earlier this month, to hear about what’s changed in the past 10 years and look ahead to what’s next.
On what’s changed
I would say competition in fast casual, especially in our segment, has heated up immensely.
I think what’s interesting to me in terms of the cuisine we serve, it has become much more mainstream. When we started, it was a little bit more niche, people ate salad for lunch, maybe, but it was not top of mind for dinner. Now we’re seeing the population as a whole move in that direction. People are a lot more conscious about what they put in their bodies, in terms of food and exercise, it’s been exciting to see that transformation. That’s been great.
Also, the use of technology in the restaurant space has skyrocketed in the last two or three years. That has its pluses and minuses.
We have been early adopters from time to time, and finally there’s some tech that has been really useful, it’s really going to make a difference.
It’s difficult to judge whether or not technologies are ready. For those of us who are more lay people, without having a big IT staff, it’s hard for the average restaurateur to make that judgment call. You want to be ahead of the curve, but you don’t want tech that’s not fleshed out, so that you go to turn the key and it doesn’t start. We have had that happen to use on a couple of occasions.
I think there have been a few lessons. If it’s a mission critical thing, like point-of-sale tech that’s going to touch the customers frequently, like a loyalty program, you need to be careful you don’t move too quickly. If you are the first mover, you run the very real risk of alienating the consumer. In reality, consumers are easy to annoy. It’s hard enough to get the order right and the staff trained, and then you thrown in aspects that aren’t functioning. When it’s touching the consumer, you have to be very careful.
On whether things have worked out as planned
Largely it has, but we haven’t gotten there the way I would have imagined. When we started back in 2004, the recession was not something we envisioned. It put the brakes on a lot of folks. Some restaurant companies were able to thrive in that time, but most had to put the brakes on.
We were able to continue to grow slowly, but we survived and came out stronger because of it. We were prepared when it started to rebound, we were in pretty good shape. It forced us to be lean and mean and cut out stuff that was not important.
I think largely it is where I would have hoped we would have been when we started, but we didn’t get there the easy way.
I still find myself wanting to pinch pennies because I got used to it through several years where there weren’t a lot of pennies around. We had priority lists of things we really wanted to do, and it was always an interesting conundrum. We can do one or two of these, it was always a very interesting discussion about what was going to get done. We still have that, I don’t want us spending frivolously, we don’t want to waste money, but now that we have the backing and capital to grow, we don’t want to be too tightfisted. Yes it still lingers, and it’s taken the better part of a year for us as a management team to strike a balance.
If you’re going to grow, you need to invest at some point.
On how the concept has evolved
When we started 10 years ago, we always had wanted to use and did use a lot of local products, but it was very difficult to procure. It’s still difficult now, but for different reasons. Back then, there were not enough sources. Now there are enough sources, but finding the ones who can meet the demand for the volume we need is a challenge. And you have to do in a way that makes sense, that doesn’t erode your margins. If you make a promise to consumers that you can’t keep, that’s painful and it’s also not good for the consumer to see that.
I think consumers in general have become more discerning from a standpoint of taste. I find people are willing to experiment with bolder and more interesting flavors. We added piri piri, an African style flavor that originated in Portugal. It’s a flavor and food style that’s been a hit, which a few years ago, would just have gotten quizzical looks. There are a lot more foodies out there. I like that as a chef and a restaurateur, we get more chances to show off our culinary prowess.
Food safety has been a big one, including the safety of livestock and humane issues. The media has a lot to do with that. It’s a big one, and we’ve always been very careful with our supply chain, visiting the farms, making sure, at least as best we can tell, that people are doing what they say they’re doing in terms of food safety.
One of the big issues with local sourcing is, how do you reconcile making sure the food supply is safe? There are a lot of safe local foods out there, but a lot of times they’re not put through the vetting process. Dan and I were just asked to join the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association board. The whole idea is to help growers of all sizes do a better job at food safety, producing the crops the market wants and getting the products out there. It will include water issues, governmental issues, and one of the committees is food safety.
On growing the staff
I think there’s been a couple things lately. We’ve been blessed with having a lot of great candidates, we’ve had a lot of really good talented folks apply. In fact, we had a brand evangelist position and we posted that, internally and externally and had a couple hundred applications and we actually ended up hiring two of them.
I will say talent is not always easy to come by, especially at the restaurants. There’s a lot of competition, and the economy’s really strong now and there’s a higher turnover rate in our industry as a whole. Colorado is the most competitive fast-casual market in the U.S., which makes it particularly interesting in terms of retaining good people. One of the things we’re doing is rolling out a technology called PlayerLynk, which was used first by NFL and college teams. It’s an iPad based system that will be used for training, recipes and other communications.
There’s a culture we’ve developed over the past 10 years or so, and we want to keep it intact. How do you grow to more locations and keep that? This is one thing we’re putting in place. The platform is being tested in two of our stores now.
On what comes next
We’ve made a commitment to ourselves to get to a minimum of 50 units in the next five years, and if the stars align correctly, we will do more than that. But we only want to open strong stores. The growth will depend on real estate, making sure we get appropriate well-vetted real estate, and then people. We can’t outgrow our pipeline of good folks.
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