New York City became the global epicenter for the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. And while the hit on business was drastic, fast casual Just Salad took the opportunity to demonstrate its core mission.
The fast-casual salad chain temporarily closed stores, mostly in urban areas, and jumped into action by committing to donate 10,000 salads a week to healthcare workers at Mt. Sinai Hospital, which services the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. The chain ended up donating more than 1 million meals to frontline workers.
“When we decided to donate, it was a big decision because we’re 50 stores — not 500,” said Nick Kenner, CEO of Just Salad. “I think some brands can lose their soul and sell out to themselves and consumers during a time of adversity, and we doubled down on our mission. … I think the commitment to our healthcare workers during that time will be in our DNA forever.”
Just Salad’s commitment to its mission led to a year-over-year sales increase, according to Top 500 data. Not only did its sales go up 4%, but Just Salad also opened a new unit in 2020, managed to keep all existing stores open and kept all managers and corporate staff on the payroll throughout the pandemic.
There is another core element to the brand that the team was careful not to lose: sustainability. It’s the one Kenner feels most passionate about; the brand is so committed that it has a chief sustainability officer and releases a sustainability report every year.
When the pandemic hit and restaurants’ use of disposables rocketed upward, Kenner and his team decided not to sacrifice sustainability. So they figured out another way to operate.
Chief sustainability officer Sandra Noonan developed Just Salad’s carbon-labeling system in the summer of 2020. As the first chain in the country to introduce carbon-labeling, Kenner said it gave the brand a way to be transparent with consumers when they were aware of COVID-friendly cleanliness but not necessarily the impact of what they were eating.
Beyond the menu addition, Just Salad is known for having one of the longest-running reusable bowl programs in the country. During the pandemic, that program became available for delivery, with in-house cleaning services in limited markets.
“Protecting New York is very important to me,” Kenner said. “I don’t want to look back 15 years from now and think, ‘I had a successful company, but wow did I create a tremendous amount of trash and garbage.”
While not vegetarian (the chain has a single animal-based protein, chicken), Just Salad wasn’t hit with many of the supply-chain challenges during COVID that others saw. In fact, there was a surplus of ingredients from farmers in 2020 that the chain was able to capitalize on in the form of Just Grocery.
When employees didn’t want to go to supermarkets or bodegas in the early days of the pandemic — or when they needed toilet paper during the shortage — Kenner and his team jumped at the chance to provide for employees, who he feels are like family.
“Once supply caught up, we didn’t have a clear path to take on [the big companies], but it was a really good journey that led to our meal kits … and that’s something that will probably be long-lasting on our menu,” he said.
Those meal kits, called Housemade, are prepared meals from ingredients in the Just Salad kitchens that are delivered to residents in all the markets the chain serves, including New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago and South Florida. The kits use 99% compostable or recyclable packaging and just need to be combined and heated.
The one-pan recipes use the same infrastructure as Just Grocery to be delivered in 60 minutes or less. But it wasn’t the only culinary innovation at Just Salad.
In addition to carbon labeling, the brand released its “Climatarian” menu that was composed of seven salads, priced according to their carbon emissions.
Despite the chain’s success in the tech and delivery space, Kenner doesn’t see the future of Just Salad in a delivery-only model.
“Brick-and-mortar physical expansion is a big focus of ours right now,” he said. “We do not think offices are dead. Where there are opportunities with landlords who are aggressive to work with us in urban settings, we will take advantage of that.”
Contact Holly Petre at [email protected]
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