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Little Beet CEO eyes expansion landscape

Becky Mulligan taps Starbucks background as brand moves into Florida

The Little Beet earlier this month opened a new restaurant in Miami, the first outside its primary markets of New York and Washington, D.C.

The New York-based fast-casual concept, owned by Aurify Brands LLC, opened its 10th location April 1 in Miami’s Aventura Mall. The first Little Beet opened in 2014 in New York City.

Becky Mulligan, a former Starbucks Corp. executive who was named CEO of The Little Beet in November, said the company plans to open 15 more of its fast-casual units through 2020.

Nearly six months into her tenure, Mulligan talked with Nation’s Restaurant News about the concept, which is known for its plant-inspired, gluten-free menu.

Little_Beet_Becky_Mulligan.pngWhat are the biggest advantages of a move outside of Little Beet’s core markets of New York and Washington, D.C.?

There are a lot of positive advantages for opening in Florida. First, we have a lot of customers that travel between New York and Florida, so we found we have high demand from existing customers to open in South Florida since they split their time there. But also, for us, just learning how our food and experience translate to a broader set of customers has been really great for us. We tend to see a little more diverse demographic. We find customers who are just not in a Midtown [Manhattan] lunch need but in a more leisurely space.

And the biggest challenges?

Creating awareness and trust with the customers who are new to our brand. … We are being very intentional and thoughtful about how we market and how we bring our brand to life in Florida. Also culture and service are different from when I walk down a street and see a store here in Manhattan and when I get on a plane and make sure we maintain our brand integrity and culture in Florida. My team has been very thoughtful in putting together a plan to make sure we pay very, very close attention to details that matter most about our brand.

What details get especially close attention?

Most important is our food: the quality of our food, the way it is prepared, our recipes. That is what really sets us apart. We make everything from scratch every morning. We hand-cut vegetables. We hand-season everything. We braise it with so much care. We have to make sure when our chef is not in the kitchen with the culinary lead every day that that comes to life the right way. No. 2: We really strive to help people think about what they are eating and how they can put it together, whether they are vegan or vegetarian or want to be dairy-free or pescatarian. Our team has to be knowledgeable to talk to them in a way that is meaningful. We have to make sure our team is educated and confident about talking with them.

Given the shift in retail trends, what about the Aventura Mall gives you confidence about that location?

I know some malls are seeing a decline in transactions, but Aventura Mall is really special. It’s the second largest mall in the U.S. It’s vibrant, and it’s energetic. They made a huge reinvestment in the food hall — they call it the Treats Food Hall — and it’s an eclectic mix of higher-end brands. It felt like the perfect space for us to be in. … The co-tenants that we have in the space also are really good for our customers.

What are some of the co-tenants?

Shake Shack is probably the most notable, which is interesting in that it’s another New York-based brand. Also, Zuuk Mediterranean [Kitchen], Luke’s Lobster, Poké 305 and a Chipotle. It’s not your normal food court tenants. It really is an elevated experience.

Any changes in operations or design?

We are on the eve of big expansions plans. We are really working to adapt our store formats and menus to meet the needs of our customers in all the venues where we intend to open. For example, I want a really tailored experience. … A menu change that we will make as we get into more residential areas is a family four-pack to go for dinner to make it easy for families. In New York, that’s not the need of our customers; they want a fast lunch that’s healthy.

How about food court locations?

In the Aventura Treats Hall, it’s a smaller venue. We actually did reduce the number of SKUs a little bit to make sure that it made sense in that tighter space versus some of our larger locations.

How big are the units?

Our smallest location is actually in Penn Station here in New York, and it’s only about 500 square feet. Our original location is our largest, and it’s at 3,500 square feet. Aventura is on the smaller side at about 850 square feet. The biggest difference is that we don’t have our own dining area.

Any other changes in Aventura?

We only run one service line in Aventura versus some of our larger locations in New York, where we run two service lines to meet demand.

You helped operationalize the integration of app ordering into Starbucks Corp. stores and served as a regional director in multiple markets. What was the learning there?

All of that certainly set me up to be able to look at what’s possible with The Little Beet, how we can show up in different markets. I definitely understand real estate, the needs of customers and how that plays out around a quality product in different markets.

How does that play out?

I believe there are two things customers want, regardless of where they are at. One, they want a really great product; in our case, it really is unbelievable food. And they want it with an amazing service experience. That’s the same everywhere. But the way we are able to bring that to life in different markets is my biggest learning in all my Starbucks experiences. Whether someone is ordering with The Little Beet on our digital channel, through catering, on our website, through a third party like Uber Eats or they are coming into our location, we need to understand how to create that consistent product and that consistent experience.

The Little Beet was honored as a Nation’s Restaurant News Hot Concept in 2016.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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