Tropical Smoothie Cafe CEO Charles Watson admits that his brand isn’t always at the leading edge when it comes to technology innovation. It is, however, a “darn good chaser,” he said — and that was a big reason why Tropical Smoothie Cafe closed 2020 up 19.7% in sales, according to NRN’s Top 500 report, published in partnership with Datassential.
Indeed, the Atlanta-based franchise had followed the likes of Domino’s, Wingstop, and Panera Bread into the digital frontier, investing millions in ordering technologies and off-premises service. And those tools came in handy in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We weren't all the way there. We were maybe 60% of the way there,” Watson said of when the pandemic began. “But we got 100% of the way there with our franchisees signing on to not just third-party delivery, but also their involvement in the app, involvement in curbside, involvement in order-ahead and takeaway.”
It wasn’t just the technology that boosted Tropical Smoothie Cafe, though. Its base of franchisees did as well. Franchisees have been the foundation of Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s success; of the nearly 1,000 locations, all but one are franchised.
Watson said the brand’s franchise partners were resilient and caring throughout the pandemic, executing against the corporate team’s on-the-fly adjustments while also taking care of their communities and their teams.
“The franchise business is a partnership, and they absolutely knocked it out of the park,” he said. “It’s really easy to come up with ideas, but it's really hard to execute them, and our franchisees did that better than anyone in the industry, in my opinion.”
Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s people-first culture further supported the brand. It’s “Inspire Better” mantra came through in the way its corporate team worked closely with franchisees, many of whom are single-unit operators. It also came through in how the company trains its teams and sets them up with the skills necessary for a long career in foodservice.
“My vision of ‘Inspire Better’ is [seen in] our 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds that are working at Tropical Smoothie Cafe,” Watson said. “You can learn the skills here; you can be with a brand that has purpose, … the higher calling, which you just have to have in today's business.”
Watson said Tropical Smoothie Cafe chose to be aggressive in its attitude toward the pandemic. It emphasized the health profile of its products, the convenience of its service and the innovation that it pushed through limited-time offers.
All that work helped the brand recover far faster than Watson expected. When sales dropped last spring, he said, the corporate team wondered if it would take years to climb back. But sales kept growing and the team kept moving the goalposts.
By the close of 2020, Tropical Smoothie Cafe had outperformed its pre-pandemic projections.
“We were the dog chasing the bus,” Watson said. “We actually caught the bus a little bit in 2020, and we've carried that momentum into 2021, and we’re super excited about it. I think 2021 is a year that is going to live in infamy for Tropical Smoothie Cafe. Our accomplishments are ultimately going to change this brand if we finish the year where we think we will in 2021.”
Watson said the brand sold over 250 franchises in 2020, and as of June was already closing in on 200 for 2021. Tropical Smoothie Cafe has more than 700 locations in the pipeline, which would help it easily clear Watson’s goal of 1,500 locations by 2025.
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- Hear the full interview with Charles Watson
- 2021 Top 500 countdown: Restaurants ranked No. 100 - No. 51
The Top 500 report is presented by Nation’s Restaurant News and Datassential, using insights from Datassential’s proprietary Firefly platform. Datassential’s Firefly is the ultimate strategic tool — No. 1 operator database, lead generator, customer marketing and intelligence platform, all-in-one. Learn more about getting complete access at datassential.com/firefly