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Growing a health-focused restaurant concept

Growing a health-focused restaurant concept

MAD Greens CEO discusses the changing marketing landscape for healthful brands

Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., president and founder of Healthy Dining, a nutrition-related marketing and consulting firm, interviews Marley Hodgson, CEO and co-founder of MAD Greens, on growing a health-focused concept. This interview and others can be seen at Healthy Dining’s Restaurant Nutrition News & Insights.

Almost nine years ago you opened the first MAD Greens, emphasizing today’s hottest trends: healthy foods, sourced locally and prepared fresh in front of the customer. You were leading the trends back then, and now you have 11 highly successful locations in Colorado. Tell us about your journey in growing MAD Greens.

Back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, we saw the need for tasty, fun and healthy food. My co-founder, Dan Long, and I had both moved to Colorado from New York City in 1991 for college. It was like a gastronomic shock when we arrived, but not for the reasons you’d expect (the Michelin-rated, buzz worthy restaurants). Instead, we couldn’t find the fresh, quick salad bars that are in every deli in the city. Both fast food and fine dining were available, but fast casual was just emerging and Denver lacked options that were fresh, quick and good for you.

We also both grew up with health-conscious moms, and we were involved with cooking at early ages. Vegetables and salads were a big part of our daily meals, and we both really missed that when we tried to find quick and easy meals in Denver.

So how did you market your first few MAD Greens?

Back in 2004, there was a deeply rooted perception that good-for-you and good-tasting were mutually exclusive. But we also knew healthy did taste good if it was fresh and innovative. We saw a market for healthy dining options — just as you did — and believed we could affect positive change in the health of our communities. However, when we opened the first restaurant we wanted to help our guests enjoy eating better, but didn’t lead our marketing efforts with health-conscious, environmentally conscious messaging. MAD Greens was still alone in its category, and health food meant something very different to consumers.

What our guests did love was watching their meals being assembled in front of them — and having lots of choices. That was a real ‘Wow!’ back then. Lots of colorful fresh produce paired with the interactive preparation and a fun environment was what kept our guests coming back for more.

Today, we have thousands of loyal guests that feel good about what they are eating at MAD Greens, and that has been the biggest driver of our success.

We are thrilled to have recently added MAD Greens to and the Kids LiveWell program. Tell us what’s different now as you market MAD Greens in this growing nutrition-focused environment?

It’s definitely a different landscape. Today, we shout from the mountaintops that we serve healthy food and locally sourced ingredients. That is what so many people are looking for now, and we want them to know that they will find exactly what they want at MAD Greens.

So what would you say are the three most important things your guests are looking for?

The combination of healthiness and taste rank highest. After that, our guests and the community value the fact that we source our ingredients locally and serve organic options. Finally, our guests appreciate the many choices available to them. We offer panini, wraps, soups and a kid’s menu in addition to our inspired salads, all of which are customizable to some degree.

Also, MAD Greens is and always has been, completely transparent. We have a nutrition calculator on our website that tracks every ingredient on our menu, and we offer an app for those with allergies so they can find food that meets their dietary needs. We get so many emails from people with allergies thanking us for the app. It is something they really appreciate, and it pairs well with our ability to customize.

But it is not all serious! A big part of our success is that our restaurants are fun and relaxed. MAD Greens makes eating healthy a positive part of life. Everyday eating shouldn’t be stuffy or preachy, it should be light-hearted and fun; that is the only way healthy will stick in the long term.

'Our meals are naturally right'

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It is really interesting that health is just as important to your guests as taste. I know you do a great job with flavor at MAD Greens. Tell us about your food.

We owe our great taste to our ingredients. Our team makes nearly everything in-house and from scratch, including our marinades and dressings. We use only all-natural ingredients and use local, farm fresh and organic whenever possible. Dan Long, a classically trained chef, and I create all of our menu options but guests appreciate that everything is in front of them, and they can customize a chef-designed salad, Panini or wrap — or create their own meals using ingredients they know are fresh and good for them.

Today, diners have a real desire to manage their diets — whether they have to because of allergies, or they choose to for lifestyle reasons — and our meals are naturally right; they meet every type of need.

How about sodium?

Sodium content is definitely on people’s minds. Our soup is probably the only area we’ve had to adjust to lower the sodium, and we have reduced it by 50 percent over the last few years. We don’t use a soup base; instead, our base is made from fresh vegetables and bones, which provide a lot of flavor without as much sodium.

So what are your plans? You aren’t going to stop at 11 locations, are you?

We will soon be expanding into several other states, which we are very excited about, and hope to reach about 50 restaurants in the next three to five years. No pun intended, we’ve grown organically over the last eight years and have prospered because of our commitment to our local neighbors, guests, and the environment. So we’ll continue to grow as we find locations that meet our criteria — and most importantly — distributors who are collaborating with local farms and dairies. Having distributors who offer local products is a huge plus for us and for the industry at large.     

Contact Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., at [email protected].

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