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Mad Greens CEO stresses transparency on nutrition

With 10 open stores and an 11th set to launch next month, Colorado-based Mad Greens isn’t  big enough to fall under new federal rules that will require chains twice its size to post calorie counts. But founders Marley Hodgson and Dan Long, who plan to keep expanding the quickservice salad chain they launched seven years ago, recently added the nutritional information on their pre-designed salads, dressings and paninis ahead of their larger competitors.

I spoke with CEO Hodgson this week about why now was the right time to add the information and how customers have reacted to having the data at their fingertips.

With 11 locations, you’re growing but still not the size where you’ll be required to post calorie counts and nutrition information. Why do it now?

It’s something we’ve toyed with for quite some time. We had been following the potential regulations, and our values as a company – it’s such an important part of our concept to be transparent and healthy – so we wondered why we would even balk at this.  It’s integral to our value proposition to the customer. We don’t have that much to hide, but even if we did, we would much rather see the customer make their own decisions. With the obesity epidemic, people need to understand what they’re eating and get a better picture of it. When you go to the grocery store and try to read labels, on salad dressings in particular, you don’t have any idea what some of those things are. We wanted to be similar to Chipotle –we wanted to be right out there where everyone can see us, they can see our people, they can see the vegetables. It’s a very interactive concept, and we felt very strongly that when you’re dealing with fresh product you want people to see it. The same thing applies from a nutritional standpoint.

We looked at some other solutions – there’s a company that prints the caloric information on the receipt. And that’s fine, but it’s after you’ve ordered. We wanted people to see it up front, so that’s why we also have the nutritional calculator online. People can design their salad, add chips and a drink or do whatever they want, then print it out and bring it in. It gives them some options. It’s definitely a part of our overall brand strategy and the healthy and better-for-you slant to our company.

From a marketing perspective, it’s always good to be out in front of a curve, especially if it makes sense for your brand. Having to be told and slapped on the wrist to fall into line, that’s not good.

Have you been getting feedback from guests?

Yes, we’ve been getting a lot of feedback. Most of it is very good; occasionally someone will say “I didn’t realize this had this so many calories or this much fat,” but most are saying thanks and they appreciate the information so they can make more informed decisions. All of our dressings are made from scratch, and we’re seeing lowfat and nonfat sales go up since we posted the information.

Online, the nutritional calculator is the most popular page on the website, with 3,500 to 5,500 page views per month. Online, we’ve got a very complex situation where people can build their own salad or go to one of our designed salads, and it shows the calories and 35 variables as far as nutrition is concerned.

In the restaurants, it’s a different story. At the same time that we did the nutritional additions, we were trying to simplify our menu to speed service and cut wait times. So we had a debate on what to add beyond calories, sodium, fat and protein.  A lot of people say it’s just about the calories, but we felt it was more important to have information for a balanced diet because people have different needs, like high-protein or lowfat diets. It’s important to be able to define that for folks. Sodium is also important – there’s a lot of guidance on that. It took us five months to make the changes. We did focus groups and Facebook stuff to try and get feedback on what’s important to customers, and we got so many different responses from people.

Was there an employee education aspect to the changes?

That actually was one of the factors in the conversation. We were getting many questions from consumers who were asking, “What’s your lowest fat, lowest carb, what has the most protein?” It’s very difficult to have to tell employees and teach them about nutrition, and we were starting to struggle with that. One of the reasons to do this was to take some of the onus off the staff to remember all this stuff. They can say, “Check it out here, we have all the dressings listed.” It’s had a good effect on the staff. They’ve started to care more about nutrition, even though some of them are young and have fast-food metabolisms.

How do you determine nutritional information for each item?

Once we come up with what the recipe is going to be, we test it first and run it through one particular store to see how it’s received. Once we’re happy with that and how it tastes, we take careful averages of the weight and volume of all ingredients we use. There’s a company we use out of Oregon– we give them all the information, and they do a full nutritional analysis for us. Sometimes it becomes more complicated, but most of the time we’re dealing with base ingredients. Luckily for us, there’s not a lot of adulteration of our products so it makes it easier to determine.

Regarding weight and volume, there’s no perfect way to ensure it will be exact. For example, when somebody scoops roasted red peppers, there’s going to be air between them, and there’s a scoop that can be different depending on who is scooping. So we do it a few times and determine an average. We’ll take 100 scoops and figure out the average weight and volume, and that’s the one we’ll use. Is it perfect? No, but it’s the best way to do it. Of course, there’s also user error and the fact that different people have different ideas of what’s considered “medium,” but we do a pretty good job of consistency.

Is it as easy to create healthy good-tasting dishes as less-nutritious ones?

I think it’s harder to create good-tasting food and menu items that are better for you. That said, I don’t think it’s as hard as some people make it out to be. There’s a reason why people have become addicted to salt and fat – it tastes pretty darn good. There are ways around that– in our nonfat dressing, we’ve figured out a way to do it. Most fat-free dressings are loaded with water, which doesn’t do much for the flavor. We were trying to figure out how can we get some weight and flavor in nonfat dressing, and we came up with one that’s pretty neat.

So you have to be willing to be creative. There’s a lot of science around food, basic science and chemistry on foods and how they interact so being curious and willing to learn gives you the ability to come up with some good ideas.

loooby via iStock