Nick Kenner, co-owner and co-founder of Just Salad, has a goal that, while lacking in measurability and timelines, is certainly lofty.
“We would like to be in every city in the U.S.,” he said. “And beyond.”
The eight-unit chain already has established a presence in some very large cities. Kenner and co-owner Rob Crespi have opened six locations of the fast-casual, watch-it-being-prepared salad chain in New York. They also have one Just Salad branch in Singapore and one in Hong Kong — cities that Kenner said are similar to New York.
“They are high-density, urban environments,” he said. They also are cities where busy office workers will spend $10 and up on salad because they want a break from deli sandwiches, fast food and the hassle of packing lunch every day.
They will pack an empty bowl, however — a detail that Kenner said he hopes will differentiate Just Salad from other emerging salad brands. Customers who bring in a Just Salad reusable bowl get two free “essentials,” like almonds, edamame or pumpkin seeds, or one free cheese in their salads.
The plastic bowl, which customers can buy for $1 at any Just Salad location, is a nod to consumers’ growing environmentally conscious attitudes and also a cornerstone of the chain’s loyalty program. Other frequent-buyer perks include a loyalty card that offers diners 5 percent to 10 percent off their purchases.
“We try to provide more value than other salad chains,” Kenner said. Just Salad also offers a 99-cent program — which highlights one item, usually a beverage, for 99 cents — and several Chef-Designed Salads & Wraps for about $7.
Just Salad’s chef, Laura Pensiero, also is a registered dietitian. Pensiero designed the Just Salad menu with a focus on not only healthful items, but also interesting combinations. For example, the Hudson Valley Mix features baby spinach, butternut squash, broccoli, apples, goat cheese, beets, pumpkin seeds and multigrain croutons. The Immunity Bowl has mesclun, grilled salmon, butternut squash, dried cranberries, wheatberries and seedless cucumbers.
Kenner and Crespi launched Just Salad in Midtown Manhattan in 2006, when both were in their 20s. Kenner said friends, family and former co-workers were willing to invest in “the next Chipotle.” The founders and other executives do not come from restaurant backgrounds, which Kenner said has not hurt the brand.
“On an ops level we have all grown together to learn the business better,” he said.
Molly Harnischfeger, a director in the restaurant and foodservice practice at AlixPartners in New York, said several consumer trends might help salad concepts succeed.
“Customization is huge now,” she said. “Health is also tremendous.”
She noted that many chains are developing everything from dipping sauces to build-your-own burgers to new combo meals in order to make it easier for consumers to customize. Some chains also are posting calorie counts — even in states that don’t require them — partnering with fitness magazines for health-related promotions and offering fresher ingredients for a more healthful positioning.
One challenge for salad chains in general, Harnischfeger said, is to differentiate themselves from their rivals.
“Competition is fierce,” she said. “It’s difficult to modify salad and make it signature.” Unless a chain comes up with a unique dressing or other flavor profile, it might be difficult for consumers to tell the difference between one salad place and the next, she added.
But Kenner said he is confident Just Salad is ready for growth. The next unit, in Brooklyn, N.Y., is scheduled to open in February.
“We are focusing more on expansion now that we have refined the concept,” he said. “We spent a long time getting it right, and we feel that coincides with consumers wanting to eat healthier.”