Web Exclusive | September 2013 | By Margarette Burnette

Fostering the Health Push

Fast casual Freshii launches business accelerator to support health-minded companies.

Freshii founder Matthew Corrin supporting upstart companies with incubator.
Freshii founder Matthew Corrin wants to help other health-focused companies get their start through a new business accelerator. Jimmy Fishbein
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Healthy fast-casual concept Freshii has expanded rapidly since Matthew Corrin founded the company in 2005. Now Corrin hopes to fuel the growth of likeminded food entrepreneurs by launching a business accelerator, the Fresh Startups program, in partnership with consulting company Kinetic Café.

“There is an increasing amount of interest and energy being spent in the healthy fast-casual arena,” Corrin says.

Freshii, whose goal is to help consumers find fresh and nutritious meal choices that energize people on the go, has 80 stores in operation across 35 cities in eight countries, with 100 more stores planned for next year. The concept features many fresh and nutritious items on its menu, including signature burritos served with brown rice wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla; an antioxidant crunch salad that includes blueberries and almonds; and spicy lemongrass soup.

Freshii’s partnership with Toronto-based Kinetic Café will give guidance to young companies that are similarly focused on food, health, and fitness, Corrin says.

Much of the innovation from the accelerator is likely to be centered around the use of technology to better serve today’s customer, says Kinetic Café principal Saul Colt, who will head up the Fresh Startups program. For example, a food entrepreneur may have an idea to develop an app that helps customers build a week’s worth of meals from the Freshii menu, with the nutritional information easily accessible from just a few touches or swipes, he says. Or a company could use technology to help restaurants more easily source their ingredients from local providers.

“The leapfrog effect of the support they’re going to get will really be an advantage over a company trying to do the same thing outside of the program,” Colt says.

Another major benefit for food entrepreneurs accepted into the program will be access to Freshii’s customers in the U.S. and other countries, Corrin says. “It will help them think through building something that will interest a customer who is concerned with health and wellness,” he says.

“We think that if more companies can do healthy fast casual well, more people in our world will live a longer and healthier life.”

The companies that make it into the accelerator’s inaugural round will receive guidance and mentorship, a $25,000 investment, and up to $15,000 in resources from Kinetic Café’s digital lab. Kinetic Café will also provide expertise in customer identification, brand design, and marketing and sales services. In return, the accelerator will negotiate an equity stake in each company.

The Fresh Startups program will be different from other accelerators because it will allow young leaders to focus on improving their core functions that bring value to the customer, instead of creating a constant search for more investment, Colt says.

“A lot of the current [accelerator] models are just about getting funding,” Colt says. Cash is important for a new company, of course, but a constant focus on pitching venture capitalists means that food entrepreneurs often have to step away from operating their businesses while they seek investments, he says.

“Our metrics for success are different. We’re worried less about how much a company raises from a venture capitalist,” Colt says. “We’re concerned more with if they’re a great business, creating jobs, and will be around in several years.”

Corrin sees the partnership as a way to broaden Freshii’s customer base. If the brand can invest in new startups and service providers that help the chain’s customers have a healthier lifestyle, it creates a larger market for the company, he says.

“We’re invested in making them successful, not just in our brand, but in the health and wellness space at large,” Corrin says. “What’s interesting is there’s no global leader [in the healthy fast-casual space]. We don’t think of it as a zero-sum game. We think that if more companies can do healthy fast casual well, more people in our world will live a longer and healthier life. That’s what we want to be a part of, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

In addition to having a built-in customer base, food startups with backing from experienced health-focused companies will be better prepared to train workers in best practices for successful healthy fast-casual concepts, says Steve Gibson, founder of TalentServed, a recruiting company that specializes in the hospitality industry.

He says many of his clients ask for people who have experience in offering healthy foodservice in a casual environment.

“Companies want to see people who can provide a healthy lifestyle to their guests,” he says. The benefits to entrepreneurs, employees, and the partnership between Freshii and Kinetic Café can create a win-win situation for everyone, he adds.