Denver-based Mad Greens isn’t strictly a vegetarian restaurant, but from the beginning the salad concept has catered to guests across the eating spectrum, from vegans to flexitarians to meat-loving omnivores, said CEO and co-founder Marley Hodgson. Mad Greens gives customers a choice of 15 designed salads, all but three of which start out vegetarian and give customers the option of adding meat, tofu or portabella mushrooms; alternately, diners can design their own salads using a checklist of mostly veggie items. “The nature of our menu is flexible, and we’ve got a lot of choice because of our slant toward salads. So, we have lots of tasty options for vegetarians.”
Additionally, a new app developed in partnership with a fan of the brand who has a tech background and three children with food allergies lets users go online or to their smartphones to put in their restrictions, including a “vegan” choice, and get a list of menu items that meet their needs.
I spoke with Hodgson about how the chain’s menu fits with a vegetarian lifestyle, other food trends and the company’s expansion plans.
As we celebrate Vegetarian Awareness Month, do you have a sense of how many of your customers are eating vegetarian?
I don’t have a number for you but we do have plenty of vegetarian choices. None of our salads come with protein add ins, people can choose to add them or not. The Ty Cobb and the DLT come with bacon and the MAD Caesar dressing has anchovies, but everything else is meatless. Then in terms of our wraps, we have a vegetarian Hamlet, and we offer the same thing in a panini. And three of our seven soups are vegetarian, and we offer at least one if not two vegetarian soup choices each day.
Are you seeing an increase in demand for meatless offerings, or hearing from vegetarian customers?
As a matter of fact we do. It’s anecdotal, but we get a lot of feedback and questions on Facebook and Twitter, and we actually use them. Most of the time, the questions are around vegetarian and vegan and gluten-free, and we get suggestions revolving around “This would be great if we could get a vegetarian option.” Our two protein add-ins that are vegetarian and vegan are organic tofu and grilled portabella mushrooms, we get requests for others that are vegetarian or vegan. We also get requests for gluten-free, that’s a big request for us, especially when it comes to breads and tortillas and wraps. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many good breads that are gluten free.
There are changes in terms of packaged food, too, there are a lot more things that are dedicated to vegetarian and gluten-free. It’s exciting, it’s opening up possibilities. I’ve seen people who are becoming more flexitarian, they’re more likely to not have meat sometimes. It’s the same for me, sometimes I have a meat-free salad just because I don’t feel like having meat that day. I think it has opened people’s eyes more to the possibilities and the reasons for being vegetarian or vegan are more understood and appreciated.
What are the other trends you’re seeing?
Gluten-free is still pretty strong, that hasn’t diminished much. The organics trend has diminished somewhat, from what we’re seeing, for a couple of reasons. I think a lot of the public has realized that, while there are some regulations out there, the benefits are much harder to define than people thought. And it’s harder to verify what’s really organic. I think there’s been some mistrust there. And there are also some studies that have questioned the true value of organic.I think the focus has shifted to sustainable and local, that has absolutely supplanted organic. And the term natural, even though it’s a catchall that doesn’t really mean anything, has become more powerful.
Speaking of local, tell us about the garden project you did over the summer.
We’ve always been proponents of doing as much local sourcing as possible, and we took it to the next level. We partnered with a company called Agriburbia out of Golden, [Colo.], which works to use urban and suburban lands to create food production on a small scale. We are one of their pilot programs, we put up the money for the farming costs, they found the land and put in the infrastructure and we help decide what they’re going to plant. They do the harvest and help do the distribution to our restaurants.
We had a full acre and grew crops including Tuscan kale, heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers. During the four-month period, 80% of our tomatoes and cucumbers and 100% of our kale came from that farm. It was really awesome, because you could taste the difference, and it’s a very replicable model.
We’ve done a lot of other cool local stuff. We get all of our goat-cheese chevre from Haystack Mountain [a producer in Longmont, Colo.]
What’s next in terms of growth for Mad Greens?
We are looking to grow to 50 units in the next five years, and expand into three additional regions outside of Colorado, plus we will continue to grow in Colorado.