Freshii.com/screengrabIn a recent issue of The New York Times magazine, Mark Bittman argued that it's high time the U.S. had more "improved fast food" chains.
And Matthew Corrin, the CEO of healthy fast-casual chain Freshii, couldn't agree more. H e expects the next decade of hypergrowth in the restaurant business to focus on "health casual" dining.
"It's all the elements and characteristics of fast casual with an added focus on health," he said. That means replacing iceberg and romaine with kale, and finding flavors through spices instead of cream.
Freshii, which first opened in Toronto in 2005, currently has more than 75 locations in eight countries, making it one of the largest players in the health casual industry and one of the first to emerge. But other restaurants with fresh and low-calorie menu items are popping up to give them a run for their money.
Maoz, a falafel-centric vegetarian eatery, has restaurants in six U.S. cities and several in Europe. Chop't, a salad shop, is operating in New York City and Washington D.C. And Native Foods Cafe is opening stores in full force on the West Coast.
Why are these restaurants taking off now? According to Bittman , Americans' standards for dining have risen, and that means they're holding the bar higher for fast food. People want options that are fast, fresh, and friendly to all kinds of diets, from vegans to gluten-free. And they don't want to break the bank.
"We’ve gone from the whistle-blowing stage to the higher-expectations stage, and some of those expectations are being met," Bittman wrote.
Health casual restaurants all have their own spin on the healthy eating concept, Corrin said. Some are focused entirely on salads, while others are strictly joints for vegans and vegetarians. Freshii aims to make its food affordable for all consumers and its menu features options from new collard green wraps, priced at $8.29, to spicy lemongrass soup, which goes for $5.99 .
"We want to eliminate the excuse that people don’t eat healthy because they either can’t afford to or it's not convenient," Corrin said.
But Corrin said store executives still have to be careful how they introduce "healthy" to consumers, since not all options are initially popular. Ingredients like quinoa and kale have been rolled out as part of promotional items to get customers comfortable and excited about the new options.
Freshii learned from one such flub in 2007, when it first introduced a line of fresh juices. At the time, they were priced too high and consumers weren't biting. Now, after a relaunch, the product is selling for an even higher price and makes up about 5% of company sales, Corrin said.
"People realize now that if you want real juice there's a price for that," he said. "Juice is the next frozen yogurt."
During the next 10 to 20 years, Corrin expects a handful of healthy, global leaders to emerge as leaders in the sector, and that's where he hopes Freshii will fall. The store is on track to have 100 locations in eight countries by the end of the year, and has plans to double the number of franchises by the end of 2014.
"Everybody sort of started around the same time, from 2000 to 2007," Corrin said. "Seven to 10 years later, we’ve got some steam."
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