The New York-based fast casual Just Salad has built a reputation for not only serving healthy ingredients, but also managing sustainable operations. CEO Nick Kenner shared how those two efforts will be scaled as the brand pursues growth.
Just Salad is experiencing rapid growth right now, with plans to open nearly 20 stores this year. What is fueling that growth?
We’re planning to open almost 20 additional company-owned restaurants by the end of this year. That expansion is happening within existing markets like Florida and the New York Tri-State area.
We are seeing awesome success in suburban and urban markets. Seeing the consumer reaction in the new markets we have been entering has been really rewarding; a lot of guests are really taken back by how much they enjoy the product from a culinary perspective, and how fresh a salad, bowl or wrap can really be. And that the price point and brand is still relatable at the same time. A lot of consumers have that Trader Joe’s or Ikea reaction where they really love both the quality of the product and the deal as well.
So take a neighborhood like Pembroke Pines, Florida, where the median income is about the same as the national average: Our restaurant there is thriving. That is significant because it points to our brand’s ability to take share in suburban markets, where the white space is obviously huge. So we have evolved pretty seamlessly from a purely urban concept to one that works equally well in the suburban landscape.
You mention the “white space.” Does that mean you still see a lot of room for growth in your category overall?
Absolutely. I would argue that this is the first time since coffee in the 1990s that the restaurant industry is seeing real category creation on a national scale, and it's very exciting to be leading that. Coffee certainly solved the problem of caffeine on the go and third place community, and the salad segment is solving for health on the go — and in our case, sustainable-conscious decisions on the go as well. Our category is under $1 billion in size today, and that could reach $20 billion over the next 10 years. Still much smaller than most other restaurant categories, but our category does not have nearly as many players. Better-for-you brands are truly the next big category, and we continue to see more people switching from less-healthy concepts such as hamburger restaurants, or at least adding healthier options to their rotation. It's starting to happen quickly.
Tell me about your product and brand. How are these driving your growth?
Our product has never been better, more craveable, or higher-quality than it is now. Over the past couple of years we’ve made specific operational changes to deliver a menu that is best in class and craveable. Take our roasted chicken. It’s marinated overnight in-house, cooked multiple times per day, in-house, and carved on a cutting board in front of the customer each time it's ordered. Two years ago, that was served cold and cubed. We have a renewed commitment to making sure every product we serve is best in class.
We don’t take shortcuts. That means homemade dressings, from-scratch recipes and prepped-daily produce — no cans, no additives. Our greens and produce are brought in whole — we hand-cut whole romaine heads multiple times per day, wash them twice and dry them twice to create extra crisp romaine. We make our avocado mash and pico de gallo fresh throughout the day; we cut our own carrots, roast our own beets.
We’re launching a new seasonal and permanent menu on March 24 that I’m very proud of. In stores, you’ll see our menu organized in a new way. We’ll have our iconic salads — Crispy Chicken Poblano, Thai Chicken Crunch, and Tokyo Supergreens — displayed on an “Iconic” menuboard; we’ll of course have the Classic salads, like Chicken Ceasar; and we’ll have an “Earth Friendly” menuboard displaying salads with low carbon footprints, which are calculated and verified by a third-party organization.
You’re known for sustainability, but certainly other brands have been doubling down on ESG (Environment, Social and Governance). What’s the Just Salad approach?
We want to change the way America consumes. Our company’s mission statement is to make everyday health and everyday sustainability possible. And we take radical action to deliver on that mission: We’re the first fast-casual concept to offer reusable packaging at scale through our Reusable Bowl program, founded in 2006. We were early to eliminate beef from our menu, replace it with plant-based beef, and subsequently expand to other plant-based proteins like Daring Chicken and Violife vegan feta. We proactively seek out partnerships that allow us to amplify our impact — like our partnership with Zero Foodprint, which donated proceeds from the Zero Foodprint salad to regenerative agriculture.
And then we do innovative things to get customers excited about sustainable eating, like eco-labeling on our digital menu and offering a Climatarian dietary filter. We have eliminated virtually all single waste plastic from our supply chain and we have a rock star Chief Sustainability Officer to guide these efforts. We are just getting started.
So boiling this down, we seek to make everyday health and sustainability craveable, through great flavor and freshness; rewarding, through rewards like free toppings for our reusable bowl customers; and attainable, through our accessible price point.
That’s a pretty unique formula within our category, if not the whole restaurant space.
On the technology front, what’s your focus right now?
We started 2022 off with a bang by relaunching the Just Salad mobile app with a vastly improved user interface. It’s a more beautiful, sleek ordering experience, with unique features like one-tap reordering, interactive nutrition and eco-labeling, the option to filter menu items by dietary preference, and improved customization. On the back end, we own our tech stack and manage it in-house, which makes us more nimble, lets us customize the experience in ways our customers love, and enhances our marketing and analytics capabilities.
Any parting words?
I’ve never had more conviction about our brand and growth potential. We are passionate about promoting from within, so it's also really exciting to be able to promote so many people on the operations and corporate level to positions they have always dreamed of and then see them thrive. We’re poised for leadership in this category and I hope Just Salad will help our guests live a healthier lifestyle while reducing the environmental impact of our customers.