Salad for Dinner? Crisp & Green Expands to Meet Demand
Crisp & Green CEO Steele Smiley set a 2021 goal of reaching 40 locations for his fast-casual salad and grain bowl restaurant chain. “I never envisioned we’d be at 38 by the second week of February,” he said.
The Minneapolis-based company just inked a deal with a franchisee who will open 10 stores in Tampa and Orlando, with more to come in Florida. Currently, seven Crisp & Green locations are up and running in the Twin Cities as well as one in Dallas. Beyond Florida, another 21 are planned or under construction in Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Texas. All of those deals came together during the pandemic.
“We were stalled before the pandemic,” Smiley said in an interview this week. A silent partner in 2016 when restaurateur Ryan Burnett opened the first Crisp & Green in Wayzata, Smiley bought the majority stake in the company in 2017 and quickly launched a franchise program. Months later Crisp & Green scored national buzz by announcing former NBA player (and Kim Kardashian’s ex-husband) Kris Humphries as its first franchise partner in the Twin Cities. Smiley set the bar high, negotiating only with well-financed investors and professional restaurant groups interested in opening several locations. In Florida, that’s the second largest Domino’s franchisee.
But after Humphries, no other strong prospects materialized—that is, until 2020 when Smiley said Crisp & Green’s stores out-performed initial 2020 expectations, despite lockdowns. With an annual unit volume per store at $1.8 million, Crisp & Green isn’t far behind some of the top fast casuals nationally, like Chipotle. Crisp & Green boasts that 20 percent of customers visit the chain three times a week or more. Smiley expects Crisp & Green to triple in size this year by focusing on markets beyond top wellness hubs like Los Angeles and Miami that aren’t yet saturated with salad stores.
Smiley credits a combination of favorable market trends and smart investments for prompting Crisp & Green’s explosive growth.
“I immediately started thinking: what if we never saw another customer in store again,” Smiley said. So he moved half of his approximately 20 corporate employees to the digital side “to make sure our app was solid, educate customers, and handle increased traffic.”
Crisp & Green built out an app for online orders before the pandemic. “We had invested too much money in an app thinking it was five years out,” Smiley said. “We didn’t know the pandemic would force everyone to do this.” It made for a smooth transition. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, 10 percent of restaurant orders were digital. Now, 90 percent of sales come through the app. Smiley anticipates some counter orders returning, but expects to remain 75 to 80 percent digital now that consumers are accustomed to ordering online.
Crisp & Green added grocery items to its menu—fresh ingredients used in its salads and grain bowls, like tomatoes and peppers sold sliced in 12-ounce containers, and turkey and chicken, available smoked, roasted or raw at $15 for 24 ounces. “We want to be that local market for the wellness conscious consumer,” Smiley said. Grocery currently accounts for 10 percent of sales; Smiley projects it could grow to as much as half the business within five years.
Growing focus on healthy eating
“One of the interesting side effects of the pandemic: people are thinking more about their health and eating healthy to make sure they don’t get sick,” Smiley said. Originally envisioned as a healthy alternative to fast food for the lunch crowd, Crisp & Green’s dinner business has more than doubled in the past year. “That’s very unusual for fast casual, but we’ve captured a lot of families looking for an easy way to eat healthy.”
“Timing is everything,” said Smiley, who brings a background in fitness and personal training to his healthy eating concept. He sold his premium personal training business Steele Fitness to Snap Fitness in 2013—noting that it might have been ahead of its time as consumers now seek ways to get individualized instruction outside of a gym setting. “The pandemic has forever changed the landscape,” he said of both food and fitness. “You need a digital component today—it should have been here before now. We’ll never go back.”