Though Coolgreens opened in 2009, it was in February of this year that we opened our first franchised location in Tulsa, Okla., as an addition to our five corporate locations in Oklahoma City. We opened our second franchised location, this one in South Lake, Texas, and plan to open two more locations in Dallas as well as other locations in Boston and Miami.
When entering any new market, it’s important we find the right partners and those with a certain level of experience and familiarity with their area. However, from a corporate standpoint, before we launched our franchising program, we had to make sure our menu, kitchen equipment and design were all up to par. We knew we did not want to ask our franchisees to do something with equipment that we weren’t going to do ourselves as operators.
In January, we kicked off these changes by introducing a new menu that now includes grain bowls, sandwiches and flatbreads but which also streamlines our ingredient list such that we reduced the number of toppings on our line to 35 from 55. It’s the last part that makes us most proud. Reducing the number of toppings directly impacts our kitchen equipment by freeing up a lot more room in walk-in coolers for a new rack system that we installed to better store fresh produce.
We also switched our walk-in coolers to ones with glass doors and a new rack system to allow for better visibility of all of our fresh fruits and vegetables. The trend nationally is to be more transparent with your product and what you’re serving. Knowing that, we worked very hard to test the theory in our corporate restaurants by using these walk-ins and also by introducing more equipment to the front main line so we can show our guests that we prepare all the food fresh every day for them. By utilizing the new walk-ins, our guests can literally open the door and grab a tomato. No one actually does that, but we do have team members who will come from the partially exposed back-of-the-house prep area and grab vegetables for prepping fresh. That was the scene we wanted to set for our guests.
Another big change is we moved from using conveyor ovens to a combi oven and two rapid-cook ovens to be able to make more menu items and do it faster, all while remaining ventless. The combi oven, which has a self-contained hood, reduces our prep cooking time and we are able to cook more things in it, including all of our proteins and vegetables. The rapid-cook ovens, which now sit on the front line in guest view, have reduced our sandwich cooking time from three minutes to a minute and a half.
As a result of these changes, the unintended consequence was that we have been able to reduce the size of our prototype by 200 square feet. When we moved more of the prep work, like chopping vegetables, toasting coconut, baking cookies and making salad dressings to the front line, not only did we make the cooking and prep process even more transparent, we also reduced our lease payments by being able to open in smaller spaces.
Since first introducing the new menu and equipment at corporate locations, sales have exceeded our expectations, and the product mix has balanced out. In the past, salads accounted for 75 percent of sales, and while they remain our primary revenue driver, that percentage has flattened out and we’re seeing a movement toward grain bowls, sandwiches and flatbreads. The refresh and introduction of new menu items has allowed us to not only showcase brighter, more exciting offerings but to prepare those items much quicker than in the past. The new menu additions and enhanced speed of service also helps deal with the “veto vote.” If four people look to grab lunch together and three want salads and the fourth wants a sandwich, they probably won’t come into a salad restaurant. The revamped menu, however, gives us the ability to attract new guests.
Beverage was an important part of our refresh as well. When we listened to our guests, many told us they wanted flavored waters and things other than soda and iced tea. Our franchisees still have the option to utilize one of the large beverage company programs, but so far, the first three locations have opted not to do that. In addition to our fresh-brewed iced tea, we also now make three different flavors of agua frescas in house using fresh fruits and vegetables, agave and filtered water that we serve out of bubblers at the beverage station. We also recently partnered with a supplier to produce our own no-sugar, flavored waters branded H20 Grow as a play on water with things that are grown, like fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs. We also expanded our other branded beverage offerings to include kombucha and other health-focused drinks.
Of course, off-premise dining is huge in our industry right now, so that was a consideration for when making these changes. We partner with several third-party delivery programs and will roll out a new, online ordering app to make it easier for our guests to order and pay for food on their smartphones. We also built a dedicated area near the door with shelves where guests can pick up their food without having to interact at all with a Coolgreens’ greeter. We also reengineered our catering program last year to not only be more green but also more efficient. We switched from using plastic containers and utensils to a recyclable catering box that allows us to deliver and set up a catering order in minutes because the box is the display for the food. It’s also easier to package in our restaurants.
When it came to the kids menu, we made only slight changes but brought it more to the forefront of in-store signage as well as online. It was simply to let parents know that we have offerings for children— they’re just smaller portions of what we offer adults. Not only does this help us continue to streamline our ingredient list, but it also supports our brand message that we don’t serve anything that is not healthful. Sure, we have a flatbread that can be thought of like a cheese pizza, but we don’t offer mac and cheese or hot dogs.
Keeping up on all of these trends is very important to Coolgreens, especially as we’re recently growing nationwide. We rely on our supply chain partners to keep us abreast of trends and changes in food. We also have a strong marketing individual, but frankly, we rely most on guest feedback to hear what they want. As management, we’re in our restaurants every day. For example, during training, I have had an executive at the new South Lake location every day talking to guests with the franchise owner by his side for a minimum of 10 hours for two weeks now.
At Coolgreens, we always want to be open to innovation. We realize that our guests and our team needs will change over time and we need to be nimble and quick enough to adapt to changes in the form of menu innovation, equipment upgrades and construction in order to respond to guest needs and industry trends. Hopefully, in doing so, we’re able to stay out in front of others and set the trends ourselves.