MARKET SEGMENT: “health casual”
NO. OF UNITS: 47
AVERAGE CHECK: $9-plus
METHOD OF GROWTH: franchising and company stores
COMPETITION: Digg Inn Seasonal Market, Evos, Protein Bar, The Veggie Grill, UFood Grill
LEADERSHIP: Matthew Corrin, founder and chief executive; Jeffrey Schlosser, chief operating officer
YEAR FOUNDED: 2005
TARGET MARKETS: Cincinnati, Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C.
WEBSITE: http://freshii.com 
Freshii Inc. founder and chief executive Matthew Corrin believes in evolution, a philosophy he demonstrated a few years ago when he decided to remake his original fast-casual Lettuce Eatery salad concept into today’s three-daypart, “health-casual” Freshii chain.
Corrin, a native of Canada who out of college served as a marketing and public relations manager for designer Oscar de la Renta in New York, was a restaurant neophyte when he opened Lettuce Eatery in Toronto in 2005 at the age of 23.
Lettuce Eatery proved to be a work in progress, however. In an earlier interview explaining how the initial iteration morphed into Freshii, Corrin said, “We evolved the business model to offer more things and became ‘Fresh Food, Custom Built, Fast,’” a five-word tagline the chain employed until recently. Freshii’s new, more compact tagline is: “Eat. Energize.”
Menu work with The Culinary Edge consultancy and a survey of current and lapsed Freshii users helped drive changes to the concept, including raising the quality of its food offerings, he said.
“We took our food from a five, to a nine out of 10,” Corrin said.
He noted the project also pared down the number of standard or “chef-driven” menu offerings. After improving and narrowing the choice of standard items, guests began ordering those dishes more frequently, rather than creating their own specials, he said, thereby making it easier to gauge product usage and control costs.
“We thought this [concept] was all about customization,” but “we’re really being defined by our users as ‘healthy’ and ‘fresh,’” Corrin said.
The modified menu is being used at new locations and will be rolled out to existing stores beginning in the first quarter, Corrin said.
The Freshii concept features an eclectic menu of chef-driven and built-to-order soups, salads, burritos, wraps, and rice, rice-noodle and quinoa bowls served in biodegradable or easily recycled packaging.
Online and smartphone ordering is supported, but in-restaurant guests fill out menu cards with check boxes to choose from several chef’s offerings or compile their own creations from 70-plus produce, starch, protein, sauce and dressing options.
The chef’s offerings include the Buffalo Stampede salad, $6.99; Buddha’s Satay rice-noodle bowl, $7.99; and the Aztec brown rice and black bean burrito, $6.99. Breakfast items ranging from Greek-style yogurt parfaits to organic oatmeal to breakfast burritos sell from $2.99 to $4.49.
Chicken and tofu can be added to almost any dish for 99 cents, and steak or shrimp are available for $1.99.
The recent consumer survey, Corrin added, also suggested Freshii could be a leader in an emerging health-casual segment.
Corrin said health-casual concepts — which he characterized as mostly one-offs and chains smaller than Freshii — might share service format, pricing and food-quality elements with some prominent fast-casual players such as Chipotle and Panera Bread.
“But they also have the additional aspect of being associated with health and wellness” by offering foods that feature good fats over bad fats, desirable ratios of carbohydrates to proteins and slow-burning carbohydrates among their potential nutritional attractions, he noted.
“They definitely are in a position where they have a healthier offering and can benefit from messaging that to their customers, provided that they don’t go to the extent of saying they are a ‘healthy’ restaurant,” Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based research firm Technomic Inc., said of Freshii.
“They need to stick to the positioning that, ‘We are better for you, nutritious, and mindful of what you eat and what we put in our food,’ without going, ‘I’m a healthy restaurant,’ which could spell a downturn because it does not resonate well with consumers,” Tristano added.
Corrin said units range in size from 300 to 1,600 square feet, with more than half of the system generating annual sales per square foot of about $1,000 and a few doing triple that volume. He said the concept’s exhaust-free equipment package and small footprint means unit-development costs typically run $275,000 or less.
As of mid-February, Chicago-based Freshii had 47 restaurants, about 75 percent of which were franchised, including 27 in the United States, 17 in Canada and three outside North America.
Corrin said an additional 33 to 38 locations will open in 2012, when the chain will enter the Cincinnati market and build additional stores in Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C., among others.