UFood Grill hopes weighty woes in past
“Selling Red Mango was like shooting fish in a barrel with a shotgun. With UFood, it’s not as easy,” says CEO Sal Rincione, at left with son D.J., who shows off his before-and-after physique.
FT: What motivated you to lose weight?
Salvatore Rincione: Honestly, our brand is a health-conscious brand, nothing over 700 calories on our menu. I got a little lazy and gained some weight, and decided, well, how can I be for the sake of argument, a “robust” CEO of a healthy brand? I decided to change my eating habits. We conduct Discovery Days, where we have potential franchisees come to our headquarters, and we do a cooking show and they try our food. I was really just embarrassed by how I represented the brand. It was my vice president, Walter Pomerleau, who made the decision first. He started this weight loss journey, and I said well if Walter can do it…
FT: How did you go about it?
Rincione: I’m an Italian from Brooklyn, New York, all right? And I grew up with the pastas and the breads and all the heavy dishes, so I cut it out. I eat steamed vegetables, I eat lean meats, chicken and lean beef and fish. I cut out all the bad carbs. The result was, in 90 days I lost 45 pounds. I went from a size 42 waist and XXL shirts down to a 36 waist and large shirts. And I did minimal exercise to do this. It was really just changing how I was eating.
FT: And was it worth it?
Rincione: I’m 45 years old. Oh my gosh, yes absolutely. I can actually walk up the stairs without losing my breath. I’ve probably lost 52, 53 pounds overall quite frankly. I have a 22-month old son, and a two-month-old daughter, so they keep me very active. It has changed my life.
FT: How did you get involved with UFood Grill?
Rincione: Prior to UFood, I was vice president of Red Mango; I built over 350 Red Mangos over seven years. I had Rick Golden on the board. He reached out to me, and said I have a brand you’d be perfect for. What really inspired me, I called this the oldest startup I’ve ever done. UFood’s been around for 14 years and it had never gotten past 16 stores. There was a disjointed development plan. The food was good, but it wasn’t great.
FT: What else attracted you?
Rincione: There’s Irma Norton the CFO, who’s been there 11 years, and Walter Pomerleau, VP of real estate, has been there 14 years—just the amount of pride they had in this brand. They wanted it to evolve into something great. I bought in. We re-branded it, from the logo to the design to the menu. We brought on an executive chef, brought on a new director of operations, Kat Kaufman, she worked for me at Red Mango. We’ve just sold our first street store to a franchisee in Maryland.
FT: What did you mean, this is the oldest startup you’ve been involved in?
Rincione: The brand’s been around for 14 years. It actually started out in Watertown, Mass., by a couple of body builders. It was originally called Low Fat Know Fat. A gentleman called George Naddaff, founder of Boston Market, saw the brand, liked it and turned it into UFood Grill.
FT: Thank goodness he changed that name.
Rincione: Low Fat Know Fat, what a horrible name. I think it was ahead of its time, it was 14 years ago. Nobody cared about the calorie count, low fat. There were unrealistic goals. They wanted to build 700 stores in four years. Not going to happen. They had some issues. Fast forward, I take the brand over. They never got past 16 locations, ever. Right now I’m at 17 locations. They closed stores down, things happened. By the end of 2016, I should have over 20 stores open. I’m going to be building a corporate store in the Boston area, one in Maryland, one in the Long Island/New York area. I actually have a 25,000-square-foot location that will be built in Liberty University. A lot of good things are going on, so I’m very pleased of the growth and where we’re at.
FT: In a way is it an advantage to be in the Northeast rather than the West Coast, because you stand out more?
Rincione: That‘s exactly my thought process: We are first to market. Our food is spectacular. When people eat the food, they’re shocked at how unbelievable it is. We have grass-fed steak, tiger shrimp, fresh turkey.
FT: What’s the similarities or differences with Red Mango?
Rincione: When I took over at Red Mango, there were 12 stores. That was in 2007, when the frozen yogurt craze was there. Selling Red Mango was like shooting fish in a barrel with a shotgun. It was very easy to accomplish that goal. With UFood, it’s not as easy for the obvious reasons. Reason No. 1: past history. There are issues, bad decisions were made with this brand. The brand was kind of quirky.
FT: And UFood went through bankruptcy reorganization.
Rincione: There was a bankruptcy. My company, Healthy Acquisitions, took it out of bankruptcy; we bought the assets in 2013. The difficult part of the brand is the black cloud. There is a bankruptcy, but that was a previous group that had bought the brand. Trying to fix that is not an easy task.
FT: Plus you have to disclose that on your FDD or franchise disclosure documents.
Rincione: Yes, there was a bankruptcy, but we’re out of it. We didn’t bankrupt the company and we bought the assets. So I made the decision to disclose that on the FDD because there are a few things that I do. I consider myself an unorthodox CEO. No. 1, I truly live my life this way morally and ethically correct. I have to be a role model for my children. I believe in talking about the past.
FT: And what do prospective franchisees say, when you tell them about the past?
Rincione: It’s been nothing but great responses because they like the fact I’m an open book. I’ll tell you what’s unorthodox. I’m the CEO of this brand and I’m involved with everything with the franchisees. My relationship with the franchisees, they’ll call me and talk about football. They’ll send me a bottle of wine that I might like to try, because I like wine. Go figure, an Italian from New York that likes wine. The military taught me how to be morally and ethically correct and do the right thing.
FT: Do you worry the trajectory for frozen yogurt—a big spike and then fade—might also be true for healthy restaurants?
Rincione: Absolutely not. People think healthy is not good food. We have real good food. When you try it, my gosh, I feel like I’m sitting in a fine dining restaurant, it’s that good.
FT: Do you ever get those pasta cravings?
Rincione: I’m a chef at heart, so I cook. I found a quinoa and lentil penne pasta, so I made that last night for dinner. But instead of eating a pound of pasta, I’ll eat six or seven ounces of pasta. I don’t really have those massive cravings like I used to. As anything in life it’s all about changing your patterns. I learned that in the military, and I’ve changed my pattern. I enjoy being in shape and looking good.