You could easily say that Dick Larsen was a man ahead of his time 40 years ago when he foundedVine and Harvest, a healthy fast casual concept known today asNature's Table. The name change came about in 1983, when Larsen's nephew, Rich Wagner, joined the team and helped with rebranding.
"My father had a health food juice company, so I grew up eating healthy and the three of us — Bryan Buffalo joined the team in 1984 — wanted to grow the company through this philosophy," Wagner said in an interview with Fast Casual.
|Bryan Buffalo (left) and Rich Wagner have been growing the brand since the early '80s.|
That philosophy once set the 70-unit brand apart from competitors, but these days customers ordering healthy food in a quick-service setting isn't unique. Wagner chatted with Fast Casual about how Nature's Table is still thriving amidst tough competition.
Q. How has the industry changed since you started in 1983?
A. At first, the industry was rather stagnant for many years, but it has really started to change lately.
Nature's Table was truly a pioneer in the industry and was on an island all by itself back then. Now consumers want true transparency and to know what is in their food and its nutritional values. The conversation has turned to hormone-free, not processed, fresh, locally sourced produce. In addition, carbon footprint and environmentally conscious paper goods are really taking center stage.
In recent years, technology certainly has become a big component of our industry, and we've adapted to make it work for us.
Q. How do you stay relevant as more healthy competitors come in to your space?
A. We evolve and stay relevant by updating our menu every three years. We also keep an eye on operational efficiencies, a strong sales-to-investment ratio, and analyzing unit economics.
Q. Can you give AUVs?
A. Since we have a varied, versatile blueprint, we have a wide range of sales. Our airport location volumes average in the millions, while some of our office buildings — which are closed on nights, weekends and holidays — certainly do not reach the same numbers as our high-visibility locations. However, we feel we have carved a special niche in the industry for entrepreneurs who also look for a quality of life through our office location concepts. Our annual sales are $29 million with 68 locations.
Q. How many franchise owners do you have?
A. We have 32 owners with many multi-unit franchisees.
Q. What is your growth plan? (When and where are you opening in the next five years, or what are your plans for future growth?)
A. Our growth plans focus on non-traditional locations. We currently attend trade shows for hospitals, colleges, universities and airports. We will continue to open locations in these venues, as well as grow organically with our franchisees. We are also working on an area development agreement in the Midwest and are targeting Jacksonville as our next market.
Q. You have a "flexible footprint model.” What does that mean to you as a company? Do you plan to continue using that model?
A. It means that we have the ability to put this brand in many different venues. We have experienced success in hospitals, college campuses, airports, office buildings, travel plazas, malls, stores and large fitness complexes. In fact, we'll be opening in the Irsay Family YMCA at CityWay in Indianapolis in the next 45 days.
Q. How do you control your supply chain? Do you use an app, a company, local farmers?
A. We have a wonderful partnership with US Foods, and all of our locations buy the bulk of their inventory directly from them. We also encourage local sourcing of produce when it is available. Our brand uses many proprietary products such as our Smoothie Base and All Natural Chicken, which are delivered along with our other items through US Foods.
Q. How do you keep costs down while offering high-quality food?
A. By partnering with US Foods and Premier, which is a group purchasing organization. Aligning ourselves with as much purchasing power as possible gives us the best pricing for premium ingredients.
Q. How do you get the word out about Nature's Table?
A. We have had greater success through social media, public relations and trade shows. We also rely heavily on good old-fashioned networking and word of mouth.
Q.What is your advice to new brands emerging in the space?
A. Know every aspect of your business from running the back-of=house to the front-of-house, open to close. It sounds like a cliché, but outstanding customer service is key. We are so flattered whenever someone chooses to eat at a Nature's Table. Work behind the counter and listen to your customers, and of course, know the financials and the meaning behind the numbers. Cherish all relationships — franchisees, landlords, distributors, manufacturers, team members and, most importantly, your guests.
Q. What do you wish you had known before you launched your business?
A. Make sure you surround yourself with people who share the same philosophy, vision and passion.
Topics: Franchising & Growth
Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for FastCasual.com.www