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Millennial Meals

On college campuses, brands compete to win picky clientele


The rules of healthy-eating food franchising have changed, and those cracking the code find brisk demand. But missteps can instantly torpedo your efforts.

Next time you drive through a college town, scout out a few franchise eateries and see if you notice. Bike racks line the sidewalks. Open kitchens beckon you in. At the counter, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free entrées are now front and center on menu boards, no longer separated by asterisks and small print.

Fresh Healthy Cafe

“The key is everything has to be fresh,” says Al Krasel, a master franchisee for Fresh Healthy Cafe.  About 30 percent of customers who visit his stores, such as the one above,  are college students.

As a potential franchisee, one mustn’t wince at the prospect of serving homemade organic bean dip and freshly seasoned kale to millennials. This is a generation of diners who demand healthier entrées, plopping down at picnic tables or gathering take-out in compostable clamshells. The healthy-food franchise of today is a model to grow by, judging by the demands of young adults and their passion for local farms and a sustainable food scene.

They know what they need, and they need it now: healthy food options they can grab on-the-go from a place that feels like home. Authentic, relatable and communal? All the better for a generation that is big on well-being and becoming social-change agents for the local economy. 

Yes, telling the world you offer fresh-and-delicious is one thing, but if every high-fat item comes direct from a factory farm pen, you might be called out on Twitter, or worse yet, Facebook and Instagram. The rules of healthy-food franchising have changed, and you’re either in—or you’re out on this one.

Consider the numbers reported by Technomic in 2011. Of the 3,500 college students surveyed, only 28 percent said they were satisfied with the quality of food they were eating on their college or university campus. This, of course, is no surprise to the number of millennials in search of healthy meals in their college towns. They simply have opted to go elsewhere, off campus, in search of something better.

Riding the trend in healthy eating is opening a lot of doors for savvy entrepreneurs. Consider the impact of Slow Food USA, a network of more than 150,000 people across the globe who are encouraging people to stay committed to community, culture and local food. Franchisors are being told, they better pay attention to all the students from high schools, colleges, universities and culinary schools who are inspiring change in their communities. 

Consider a recent Slow Food retweet on Twitter: “The only thing Fast Food does is fast track your body to addiction, obesity and illness.”

Right or wrong, it’s a force to be reckoned with.

Entrepreneur Sean Kelly spotted it years ago. As the owner of HUMAN Healthy Vending, whose “full-system franchise” has placed more than 1,000 healthy vending machines in 40 states, Canada and Puerto Rico, he saw what bad food choices were doing to patients he cared for while interning at a hospital in New York City.  As a student at Columbia University, Kelly came up with the idea of developing a vending machine franchise when he was a college student himself.

Now 30, Kelly’s vending supply franchise has expanded to hospitals, corporations, small businesses and other places where people want food options like acai berry smoothies, kale chips and beef jerky bars. “The majority of other vending companies are simply rebranding a vending machine,” Kelly said. “We are so much different from anyone else out there.” 

Al Krasel, a master franchisee for Fresh Healthy Café in northeast Ohio, has been eyeing the trend for years. He knows young adults have been joining the healthy-food movement in droves, and his cafés offer fresh kale smoothies, kale salad and kale paninis—among other things. 

“The key is, everything has to be fresh,” he said. “Even the coffee is fresh, made right on the spot. Nothing is sitting and waiting for the customer. The customer is here, waiting for the product, because you totally have to customize it for them.”

Location of course is the end all, be all. Mall locations close enough to colleges are perfect for Krasel because customers come from all over. 

Krasel says about 30 percent of his customers are college students, and his Beachwood location near Cleveland is the top producer worldwide for the Fresh Healthy Café franchise. “When I first opened, I had smoothies, coffee and juices,” he said. “Now I have more food than anyone on the food court.”

Beachwood is an affluent city less than three miles from John Carroll University and Notre Dame College. Five miles further down the road is the campus of Case Western Reserve University.

Krasel also added locations near Summit Mall and shopping establishments like Legacy Village and Crocker Park. He scores big among young urban professionals who are searching for healthy, home-cooked meals.

HUMAN Healthy vending machine

The younger generation, too, likes the healthy options in this HUMAN Healthy vending machine.

Foodservice companies like Compass Group North America know about healthy food trends all too well. Like ARAMARK and Clarion Group Food Service Consultants, Compass manages food menus for colleges and prepares healthy food options for corporate cafés, cafeterias and catering venues. These nontraditional markets for franchises are everywhere, so when clients want Chick-fil-A, California Pizza Kitchen, Einstein Bros Bagels, Taco Bell or Subway, management companies are there to negotiate.

At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the Compass Group’s Bon Appétit Management Co. oversees all of the healthy dining options in campus buildings and residence halls, including a collaborative Farm to Fork program. The model is big on supporting local agriculture, cage-free fare and carefully selected meal plans, which students, faculty and staff seem to notice. Seasonally grown produce is also delivered to campus fresh from the university farm, which serves as a direct link in the sustainability chain that Bon Appétit promotes. 

Of course, fresh healthy eating might taste good, but it also has a down side, particularly for franchises that offer limited fare. Pizza Fusion is one such franchise that still offers gluten-free pizza at CWRU, although two of its food operations closed in early 2012. As Compass Brand Manager Nicole Hatfield explains, “menu fatigue” can be challenging for a lot of franchises in the healthy food space. Although the pizza franchise was spot-on with nutritious fare, customers often demand a change of pace regularly, Hatfield said. 

When franchises offer little variety, consumer demands tend to dictate whether a franchise will stay or go. And Krasel knows that desire for change all too well, which is why he opted to convince his own international franchisor to mix up the food choices he could offer. His desire to add kale, for example, has proved to be a huge success. He also made it a point to add crepes made from scratch, as well as fresh quesadillas. The result? Business has grown about 15 percent each year, and he was on track to hit $1 million in sales for year-end 2013.

For Krasel, it made sense to pay attention to the demands of millennials. And as the website for Slow Food explains:
“For every fast-food franchise in this country, there is a family recipe, heirloom seed, deeply rooted tradition, or responsible business. We are not a fast-food nation. We are putting gardens in schools and saving ancient foods from extinction. We are not frozen hamburger patties and super-sized sodas. We are Manoomin wild rice and Tupelo Honey.” 

Welcome to a different kind of healthy-food franchise, courtesy of a whole new generation. 


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