Tony Shure and Colin McCabe, best friends and business partners, go way back. They went to the same school in New York City. Friendly but distant at school, they grew close after finding themselves, by pure coincidence, both freshmen at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. One of the things they had in common was dismay at the food choices there. Neither had a business background—Tony was an English major and Colin majored in Italian—but they quickly decided they would start a restaurant after college. And after a six-month stint of restaurant management in Denver, they came back to New York and put the plan in motion.
Salad was always at the heart of the business, McCabe says. “You don’t have to eat salad,” he adds quickly. “You can eat onion rings and grilled steak. But everything we make is clean and fresh.”
Their first store, on Union Square in Manhattan, was an immediate hit. Shure and McCabe even appointed a “lettuce bouncer,” one person who goes through every leaf. They also clean all their lettuce with an organic wash, making sure it’s bone dry before serving it.
For the first few years Shure and McCabe focused intently on their Union Square store. “In the back of our heads the plan was to grow the brand, but we were so focused on creating a product and an experience that was sustainable. All our efforts for the first couple of years went toward developing food and service that was absolutely consistent. We wanted to be known for having the freshest food.
Owners: Tony Shure
and Colin McCabe
HQ: New York, NY
Year Started: 2001
Annual Sales: $20 million
Total Units: 9
Franchise Units: 0
“We really dissected our menu to create salads that would exceed people’s expectations. We were trying to put together combinations that would be intensely crave-able to our customers.”
Customers choose from an ever-changing raft of ingredients. The “Detox Club,” for example, is one of Chop’t’s seasonal specials, which change every 60 days. It’s made from mesclun, shredded red cabbage, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, Granny Smith apples, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds. The Detox dressing uses lemon, olive oil, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup. All the salad ingredients are, as the New York Post says, “maniacally hacked into bite size pieces” by employees using “the curved blade of a mezzaluna.”
Most salads cost less than $10; all are individually tossed to order.
McCabe says they are fanatical about their food. “We roast our own turkeys, we pan fry our chicken, we boil our own beets. All our dressings are from our own recipes. And all the lettuce arrives fresh every morning. The key is to keep everything at 40 degrees or lower.”
After achieving the consistent quality they were aiming for at Union Square, the partners moved fast, opening eight more stores—six of them within a 15-month time span. Now, with annual sales averaging $2 million per store (1,700–2,000 square feet per unit) the partners say they’re edging north of $20 million in annual sales, making them the envy of their competitors.
“But we are resolute. We don’t worry about copycats or knockoffs,” McCabe says. “We just concentrate on what we’re doing, and when we do that, we find nobody can catch up with us.”
At lunch time Chop’t is jammed, with lines snaking around the building. A few famous faces have even stopped by for a bite, including Hilary Swank, Matt Damon, and Martha Stewart.
The partners use large suppliers, like Coastal Sunbelt, but are looking into local sourcing. The problem so far, McCabe says, is that they need volume. Dozens of crates of fresh vegetables need to arrive every single day.
McCabe says they’re in negotiations for opening stores in other cities. He doesn’t rule out franchising, but says it will be farther down the line.
The founders pride themselves on having found a giant hole in the marketplace and rushed in to fill it.
“People come in and say, ‘I had this idea two years ago.’” McCabe says. “It’s always the obvious thing that resonates with people. We could have tried to come in and make a quick buck, but that would have been dishonest. We keep it honest.”
The delicate operation of keeping chopped vegetables fresh—especially lettuce—is “a humbling business,” he says. “One brown leaf can ruin the brand.”