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Quick-casual salad concept growing like mad

7 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

This post is by SmartBlog on Restaurants and SmartBrief on Restaurants contributor Janet Forgrieve.

Marley Hodgson and Dan Long pooled their resources to open the first Mad Greens location in the suburbs south of Denver in 2004. The concept — fresh salads with funny names or custom-made to order — took off quickly among consumers looking for a healthier quick-casual option, and the company is poised to launch its 10th Colorado store later this month. We spoke with Hodgson this week about what’s changed since he and Long invested their own money and labor getting the first couple of stores up and running.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as you’ve built the business?

Some of the big ones have been with staffing. Hire the people for their people skills and we can teach them the restaurant skills — that’s been a big lesson for us. We used to value restaurant experience very much, but we learned over time that we can teach that. Hiring people who can communicate well to the guests and other staff makes the brand go. Our staff is making the food and has to be able to converse and be pleasant and make the customer feel comfortable, while at the same time being fast. We’re getting better and better at hiring staff.

Another big one is staying true to your menu and being cognizant about not adulterating what you’re offering. All our stuff is homemade. We’ve been tempted over the last five years to outsource some things or buy some pre-made products, but we’ve stayed away from that and been rewarded for it.

One of the lessons we also learned, or that we knew going in and that was proved, is there was a groundswell change in the way people were thinking about eating in the late ’90s and early 2000s. We feel strongly about it and wanted to be part of it, as people began focusing more on wholesome meals. It was a wonderful thing for us, it’s a lesson we continue to learn and it’s a big part of our brand.

Now that you’re about to hit the magic number 10, what are your plans for future growth?

Toward the end of 2007, we were looking at things and saw they were out of whack — commodity prices were high and real estate was in a bubble, so we pulled back and decided to focus internally and get all that correct. When the recession hit, we didn’t get caught with a whole bunch of new units struggling to get going. That’s another reason we were able to have a good year last year, and it put us in a decent position to grow this year.

We added two stores this year and we’re looking to add another three in Colorado around the end of this year or beginning of next year. After that, we plan to continue our growth in Colorado, but we also want to move to a new market. We’ve been looking at several, including Texas, California, Arizona and Nevada. We’re being a little bit cautious in figuring out where we want to cut our teeth for our first new market. It’ll be a big leap for us and we want to make sure we can take our lumps. Our strategy in the beginning was that we grew quickly because we knew we needed to get to a certain size to have staying power. Now, we want to be smart in today’s economy — and today’s economy is going to be around for a while. We’ll take it slow and steady and build the infrastructure correctly.

We still have grand plans about trying to take it multiregional and national, but we’ve been reticent in saying we’ll be at “x” number of units by “y” time. The timing is what the timing is and we’re not going to be a slave to it.

Any plans to franchise?

It’s on our radar, but it’s sort of like our growth. We don’t have a need to franchise by a certain time. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right, when we have a solid infrastructure and mass that’s tried, true, tested and supportable for franchisees.

How have things changed in terms of managing the supply chain?

Staying close to your supply chain is a hyper-critical component of the business. Dan or I will travel to Salinas, [Calif.,] or around Colorado, to visit growers and co-ops we use to understand exactly how the supply chain is being taken care of. We know some of the growers and see firsthand how they’re operating; we know the field inspectors. We have a system in place so we can track back all our produce to the source so, in the event of a recall, we can know almost instantaneously if any of our products are involved. But we can also call the field inspectors personally. For example, if we see it’s pouring rain in Salinas, we can call and ask if we have anything to worry about with the romaine. They can let us know if there’s a problem and we can alert the general managers to let them know that we’ll be working with different products.

Now we buy in such quantities that we get the attention of some of these growers, and they’re more willing to do some of the things we request in terms of safety measures and contracts. At the same time, though, our exposure grows. Switching fast to a new supplier is not so easy when you go through the amount of romaine we go through. It’s especially true in summer, when we use as many Colorado growers as we can — it’s fun, but they’re not as big, so one hail storm can send everyone scrambling.

How have your roles changed as the business has grown?

Drastically! Most of it has been good, although I sometimes sort of long for the days when we worked in the store everyday. In the beginning, we were working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. We put all our own money into the first two units, along with a ton of effort to be there every minute, tweaking the menu and the concept and running the store. Over time, as we’ve added more units, we’ve shifted from day-to-day operations to making sure the systems are there for others to do the job, and making sure the people are part of culture and ultimately part of the customer experience. As president and COO, Dan oversees the operations team and build-out of the restaurants, and he’s still the point person on menu development. I’m the CEO and I handle the administration of the company, finance, legal, HR and real-estate acquisitions. I don’t get into the stores as much as I should or would like to. It’s easy to get sucked into sitting in an office and dealing with the issues I have to deal with. I have to put on my calendar, “Go work in the store today.”

Image via Mad Greens on Facebook