Giardino Gourmet Salads launched in 2004 in southern Florida by Ody and Kenny Lugo. At the time, Ody was a schoolteacher and Kenny was a firefighter.
Neither had any restaurant industry experience, but they both wanted to embark on a new experience.
After taking radical sabbaticals from their professions, the couple decided to open Giardino Gourmet Salads.
"We truly wanted to impact the fast food industry by educating people that healthy eating did not have to be complex nor boring," Ody Lugo said. "We decided to do salads because it was the most popular form in which people ate vegetables."
The name, Giardino, translates to garden in Italian, and is indicative of what customers find in the restaurant -- freshly chopped produce and other items that evoke memories of garden ingredients.
In addition to the creation of the menu featuring salad staples such as the Big Apple, Fizz and Crab Louis, the menu includes a variety of homemade croutons and salad dressings.
"We came up with amazing combination and homemade recipes, and had fun reinventing old traditional favorites," Ody said. "It was a way to go back to basics and show that real food was delicious."
Salad dressing flavors include Basil Pesto with Classic Balsamic, Country Garlic, Berry, Parmesan and Mango poppy. Meanwhile crouton flavors are Soaked Italian (with olive oil & balsamic vinegar), Toasted Pitas, Sesame Croutons, and Plain with Sea Salt.
"When creating the salad menu, I wanted not only to highlight the salad combination, but also create an emphasis in the dressings," Ody said. "I decided to concentrate on unique new flavors and classics rather than recreate traditional ones like thousand island and ranch. Although we still have those popular flavors, we mainly promote our homemade dressings and sell them at all the locations."
The dressings are created in a commissary and are distributed on a weekly basis to all the locations. The couple's eventual goal is to have an extensive line of dressings that they can retail in other locations.
There are now seven locations throughout Florida, which is a mix of company- and franchisee-owned units, and the couple recently signed their first multi-unit franchisee.
"When we opened in 2004 we had an incredible response. We immediately had franchising interest and after our second year we started franchising," Ody said. "The demand was more than the supply and we decided that although the interest was there it was our priority to consciously grow this business. We are true believers that if the foundation is not right, nothing will rise."
Within the next couple of months, a unit will be opening in the Brickell business district in Miami featuring a new store prototype, followed by another unit in the Miami Lakes area. A third location also is scheduled to open in the new Jackson Memorial Hospital center being built.
"These three locations are new operators that have joined our team in the last 12 months," Ody said. "We are expecting 2013 should be even better, as we are embarking in additional development in the South Florida area, as well as other cities outside."
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