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Freshii takes cue from fast fashion


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Freshii CEO Matthew Corrin, center, with team members Carros Johnson and La’Dashea Burton.

Once upon a time restaurant companies aspired to be the next McDonald’s. And until recently, they all want to be the next Chipotle.

But not restaurateur Matthew Corrin. The 34-year-old CEO envisions his Freshii concept as the next Zara—yes, the retailer. What he admires about Zara, he says, is its ability to take designs from the world’s top fashion runways and quickly adapt them into an affordable version for their stores.

It takes Zara two weeks to develop a new product as opposed to other retailers who take six months, according to Forbes magazine, which lists Zara as No. 58 on the World’s Most Valuable Brands.

Corrin, a former fashion publicist, gets his inspiration from a different kind of runway now. “We travel around the world to look for local buzz, who has long lines,” Corrin says about his Zara-like tack. “Then every 70 days we bring that to the masses.”

Examples of healthy offerings he’s rotated quickly onto the menu are the sushito, the giant sushi roll that resembles a burrito; vegan chili; and kefir smoothies. In their test kitchens presently is a “Kalezza,” a salad atop a pizza, where the kale is hand-rubbed in olive oil to make it softer.

Corrin, looking fit in an athletic shirt that he points out is from Target, not the high-fashion Lululemon, was visiting the latest grand opening of Freshii, this time in Minnesota’s Mall of America. His trip here from Toronto, where he’s based, was multifaceted.

He also attended a giant We Day celebration for Free the Children, a charity Freshii supports by building schools with kitchens in Kenya. He gave a speech at a local Canadian Trade Mission event, and visited Target about their joint test to open Freshii units in the old Target café spaces in nine locations in Chicago and Minneapolis.

“Target appeals to the masses, but it does it with style,” Corrin says. He believes Freshii will help Target achieve that “health-halo effect” that is important to its millennial shoppers. That hip, healthy-lifestyle message was somewhat compromised when the first thing customers saw as they entered through the red doors were hot dogs and slushies.

Freshii started almost a decade ago as a fast-casual salad concept, where diners checked off the items on a form they wanted in their salad, and then watched as a server assembled it. Additions over the years include $6 juices, smoothies, breakfast items, and soups and bowls.

Corrin feels pressure to continually freshen up Freshii’s menu because the definition of health and wellness keeps changing, he says, which means never tying his concept to just one healthy item.

To prove his point, juice bars on the two coasts are closing at a rapid pace, he says, an occurrence he predicts the middle part of the country soon will experience as well.

Millennials are his fan base, as well as where he’s  finding franchisees. Like most franchisors and franchisees, Kevin McPhee, 32, was trying to solve a problem when he came across Freshii. “I was trying to find a fast, healthy alternative to Subway,” he says, “And I thought this was perfect.” 

Corrin got into the restaurant business after success at a young age in other industries. He decided to open a salad concept in 2006 because he saw a need for quick but healthy food. Others did, too, and franchising began in 2008.

It’s surprising Corrin stuck with it since on his very first grand opening, the chef almost cut his finger off and had to be rushed to the hospital, and his second in command fainted after seeing so much blood, breaking his nose.

Corrin was going to throw in the bloody towel, but when he called to tell his wife he was delaying the opening, she rushed over to the store. The two of them worked the line—after throwing away a heartbreaking amount of blood-splattered romaine. They made it through the lunch rush and decided it could only be uphill from there on out. And they had a lot to learn.

He now has 200 stores open in 15 countries and 80 cities, which he expects to double by the end of 2016.

“The problem with the restaurant industry,” he says, as we stand in the hallway outside looking in, “is it looks so much easier from this view.”

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