Show and tell: Coolgreens demonstrates how 'picturing' community health can be profitable

| by S.A. Whitehead
Show and tell: Coolgreens demonstrates how 'picturing' community health can be profitable

Showing vs telling is always a better way to go when trying to convince someone of something, a principle not lost on restaurateurs these days. Many are embracing visual marketing to show customers that they are fresh, transparent and on board with all things socially and environmentally responsible.

Subway, for example, announced a redesign focusing on counter-area shelves brimming with whole produce, and Italy's Vapiano showcases live trees and potted plants and natural woodfurnishings in some of if its locations. John Vincent, the founder of the health-focused chain, LEON, recently talked to attendees at the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit in London about how he visually demonstrates to his customers what the brand is about rather than simply telling them.

Another brand embracing the trend is Coolgreens, an 8-year-old Oklahoma-based fast casual brand devoted to quick-serve principles. With seven Oklahoma locations, it's all about health, community and transparency of operations and products. 

The visual proof of those ideas starts on the Coolgreens website where a landing page section is devoted entirely to community with a millennial-aged woman mid-yoga-pose. That one image shows the viewers that the brand strives for community connection and health.

Executing health and freshness can be a challenge for many QSR and fast casual brands, which are often forced to rely on packaged and frozen food in bulk to deliver on that "quick" and "fast" promise. 

Coolgreens, however, seems to make it work.

"Our goal is to be an active part of the community, inspiring people to build healthful lifestyles," said CEO Robert Lee, who recently discussed with us how he uses visual marketing to help interpret and relay these qualities to each restaurant location's community.  "If we can make a positive change, even with a handful of people, then we are achieving our goals. By partnering with like-minded businesses to host community events we expand our outreach, allowing us to positively inspire more people."

Q: Coolgreens focuses in large part on branding itself as a source of community health through food and other initiatives. What do you mean by that? 
Our goal is to be an active part of the community, inspiring people to build healthful lifestyles. If we can make a positive change, even with a handful of people, then we are achieving our goals. 

By partnering with like-minded businesses to host community events we expand our outreach, allowing us to positively inspire more people. By truly believing that fresh food tastes better, every morning we prepare our food fresh, from scratch. 

From washing and cutting heads of romaine, hand making soups and salad dressings, fresh cutting and prepping of over 50 different toppings on our line, to cooking our proteins and making our cookies, everything is made in house and always fresh. ... Over the eight years we have been in business, our unwavering passion for fresh allowed us to refine our procedures to ensure efficiency in our food and labor costs. 

Q: So how does this vision present itself to the community visually, beyond things like interior design elements and more open kitchen operations? 
We are a customer focused company, and will always evolve by connecting with our customers and the community. 
We see (this by) getting into elementary schools and being able to work with faculty and students to plant vegetable gardens, educat(e) kids on the importance of farming as part of our society and to also show them how good real, out-of-the-ground food can be, instilling in them, too, that pride of community. ...

(Also) Coolgreens connects and partners with other like-minded businesses to host local events. From free yoga classes on a Coolgreens' porch, diet and nutrition classes in on our dining rooms, cross-fit and cycling workouts, among many others, we are proud to have the opportunity to help local businesses grow, while also helping to educate our community about a healthy lifestyle.

Q: On the food sourcing and prep end of a super-fresh, rapidly served concept, are there many challenges? 
Yes, absolutely. We aren't serving dry goods out of cans and boxes with long shelf life. With eight years of operation, we've certainly had to overcome challenges along the way and I'm sure there will be more in the future. There always are.  

By continually refining our procedures, we have found what works, and what doesn't. Without the right practices and procedures in place, it's difficult to control the freshness and quality of your food, your labor costs, all while staying innovative. ...

Supply chain management and sourcing is very important. We work extensively with our vendors and a supply chain management consultant to ensure what we source meets strict guidelines. 

We prefer to source locally whenever possible. By identifying farmers, growers, and vendors that meet these strict guidelines, Coolgreens can then ensure quality and consistency and food safety.

We have developed relationships with vendors and supply chain management consultants to perform monthly audits of our pricing, sourcing, and materials. This allows us to ensure stock and sourcing of our items, competitive pricing and market outlooks on seasonal (and) recalled (items) or potential shortages. Coolgreens has been able to establish and strengthen these relationships in the last 12 months, helping us realize double-digit percentage savings across our purchases and sourcing.

Q: How do you instill this vision in employees, so that they're essentially "wearing the brand" too? 
Training is definitely the key to the success of the community mission. We have to train the trainers, the managers and ultimately the employees on continually speaking our language. Once the employees buy in, good things happen.

Q: You know, when a huge chain like Subway redirects itself (albeit for the second time) to this healthfulness idea, you know the trend is going mainstream. Is that good, bad or somewhere in between for existing players like you? 
In the past 24 months I've seen many quick-serve concepts pop up attempting to capitalize on the healthy QSR segment. This is both exciting and worrisome. 

New concepts help the healthy segment grow and innovate, and give more access to healthy food. I enjoy seeing new concepts and what they have to offer. 

While exciting for the segment, I worry that concepts with less focus, refinement, or experience will give potential healthy customers a bad experience, and potential business owners a bad investment. 

Q: What kind of food storage, prep and pricing challenges does a quick-service type brand focused on community health and fresh foods face? 
Pricing is always a factor in the healthy QSR segment. With the quality of our products, the pricing of the items should be relative, within reason. We certainly can't price ourselves outside of the market without the proper procedures in place. 

With the short shelf life of our products, and the labor involved with preparing our items daily, we must ensure the procedures we have developed ... are trained and practiced throughout our locations. It's very important very each of our new employees go through our on-boarding and career pathing programs (to) ensure our training is taking place on day one. By refining the information contained in each training and career pathing packet, we help ensure consistency in our products, and control in our costs.

Q: As far as lessons learned about things like research, partnerships and decision-making, have you any thoughts to offer? 
It's important to note that initial market research can only go so far, including our own. There's simply no substitute for the information we have gained ... since opening our first Coolgreens in 2009.  

Equally as important is how we have used this information to influence our planning, procedures and decision-making processes. As a result, we've been able to strengthen our brand, expand our core customer base, innovate our menu (and) increase our efficiencies, all while continuing stay relevant. 

Q: So, how does this particular restaurant brand's "garden" approach growth? 
Our growth strategy is actually fairly simple: We are lifestyle- and community-focused, and are simply looking for more similar markets to the markets that we are currently operating in. Dallas, Houston, Austin, Kansas City, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Denver, Nashville are all vibrant, active markets and that's where we will be headed next. 

Feature photo: iStock

Other photos: Provided by Coolgreens

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Franchising & Growth, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Social Responsibility

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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