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Tropical Smoothie Cafe is one of America's Favorite Chains. Here's how it's building on that momentum.

How Tropical Smoothie Cafe has become Gen Z’s snack brand of choice

With the rise in both the afternoon daypart and snack food, the brand is positioned for massive growth

If we’ve learned one thing about Gen Z, it’s that this generation — typically considered people born in the late 1990s and 2000s —  enjoys portable snacks. Chain after chain have altered menu offerings to accommodate the changing consumer wants as Gen Z has come into their own money and acquired spending power.

That’s on top of the rising consumer tide favoring an afternoon treat.

Brands from McDonald’s to KFC have tried to get in on these trends that companies like Dutch Bros and 7 Brew dominate. However, there’s one brand that naturally has it all: Tropical Smoothie Cafe.

Last month, Nation’s Restaurant News partnered with Technomic to release America’s Favorite Chains, a comprehensive report of which restaurant chains Americans love the most. One brand that was consistently on top for cuisine and overall experience, as well as a favorite brand for both Gen Z and Millennials, was Tropical Smoothie Cafe.

“We’re uniquely positioned right to meet today’s desires and what people want,” said Charles Watson, CEO of Tropical Smoothie Cafe.

Atlanta-based quick-service restaurant Tropical Smoothie Cafe has been on a tear for a while. It’s seen 12 straight years of same-store sales growth and finished 2023 with a 14%-unit growth rate. That’s due to increased brand awareness, according to Watson, but it’s also because of intentional marketing.

“As our system size grows, our voice needs to get louder,” he said.

That means national marketing, which means an ad at the Super Bowl. Granted, it was the Nickelodeon Super Bowl, but national media nonetheless.

That show, a broadcast of the Super Bowl with famous cartoon characters and Nickelodeon’s famous slime, garnered 1.2 million viewers.

The Nickelodeon show was a way to target Gen Alpha (people born since 2010) and Gen Z, consumers who have lost interest in football. The sport saw a 13% decline in youth participation from 2019 to 2022, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

“We know who we’re targeting [at the Nickelodeon Super Bowl show],” Watson said, indicating that the company appreciated the opportunity to promote its “product that is for the times and highly portable and a little bit healthier. We really like the messaging.”

It’s the younger generations that Tropical Smoothie Cafe is trying to attract and genuinely considers its natural consumers.

In another attempt to reach younger consumers, the brand tapped Saturday Night Live comedian Chloe Fineman for a marketing campaign.

“We thought [Fineman] was a fantastic fit for us,” Watson said. “A really good brand fit in terms of her youth… and talent.”

In a 2023 presentation by Coca-Cola at The National Restaurant Association Show, it was revealed that 46.5% of working Gen Z employees have more than one job, which means that they are more likely to opt for menu items that they can conveniently enjoy on the go.

“I think we’ve been absolutely the beneficiary of demographic and culinary changes,” Watson said. “And I think it’s driven by giving [consumers] what they want.”

While the long-standing items on the menu at Tropical Smoothie Cafe, like the smoothies and the wraps, have been customer favorites for a long time, the brand recently introduced Tropic Bowls. These bowls are made with a cream base (yogurt or açaí are some options) and topped with fruit, granola, nuts, and more.

The presentation from the Restaurant Show stated that Gen Z is more health-conscious than generations before it, and is focused on nutrition.

Such health-focused menu items include these new Tropic Bowls, and the brand is constantly innovating when it comes to its smoothies and drinks. It’s this innovation that Watson believes makes Tropical Smoothie Cafe not only the brand of today’s youth but tomorrow’s as well.

“I’m looking to make sure that it’s a fantastic iconic brand 25 years from now, and I think that we have the scale and the staying power,” he said. “If we continue to innovate, if we continue to support our franchisees, we have the scale and the model that works for franchisees to carry us forward for a long time.”

TAGS: Menu Marketing
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