When Wan Kim bought Smoothie King from founders Steve and Cindy Kuhnau in 2012, there were 600 units operating in 32 states, the Caymans, and South Korea. Now, the brand just opened its 1,400th location in Huntington, West Virginia—and a lot more has changed in a decade. 

Before becoming CEO of the brand, Kim opened the first international Smoothie King store in South Korea in 2003 and quickly grew his franchise footprint to 120 stores in the country. 

Smoothie King has experienced unprecedented growth under Kim’s leadership. Between 2012 and 2020, the average unit volume increased from roughly $361,000 to $498,000, a compound annual growth rate of 5.5 percent. 

Since taking the helm, Kim has led efforts to transform the brand’s menu from being packed with sugar and artificial flavors and colors to being health-conscious and packed with whole fruits and organic, non-GMO ingredients. That’s in contrast to a lot of smoothie brands that use syrups, Kim says.  

The main focus is not only giving guests the ability to customize smoothies according to their preferences, Kim says, but pushing Smoothie King to more closely align with a healthier, active lifestyle. 

Kim launched a project in 2015 to swap out every ingredient at the franchise with a healthier option. The project finished in 2019, and Kim says 70 percent of the brand’s smoothies now contain no added sugar. A “no-no list” includes no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and more. 

“It was a really difficult project for us,” Kim says. “So many people who used to come to us because of the sugar were like, ‘why are you doing this? Why are you making all these changes?’ And a lot of people who who wanted healthier options just thought Smoothie King was a sugar bomb. It took a long time to convince more people to come in.”

Reducing sugar in the majority of its smoothies has helped Smoothie King meet the “evolving expectations of our guests and authentically connects to our mission and vision,” says Dan Harmon, president and chief operating officer. 

Harmon joined the company in 2017 and has assisted with evolving the brand’s digital sales channels, which also increased franchisee revenue. Earlier this year, Smoothie King announced a record 17 percent increase in average unit volume, reaching more than $609,000. The top 25 percent of stores reported AUVs of more than $907,000. 

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Becoming the SoulCycle of the restaurant industry

Kim envisions Smoothie King becoming an integral part of “every person’s fitness journey,” he says. “Think of Nike, Lululemon, SoulCycle, but from the restaurant industry … I really believe we can be the first brand in the restaurant industry that can own health and fitness, really in our DNA.”

Smoothie King is also taking advantage of the quick-service partnership frenzy. In fact, the brand has an entire page on its website dedicated to its various partnerships. In addition to being the “official smoothie” of the Dallas Cowboys, the brand has the naming rights for 10 years at the Smoothie King Center, where the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans play. 

The franchise also recently joined forces with the American Cancer Society to create a smoothie to aid some of the side effects experienced by people receiving chemotherapy, plus Drew Brees and Challenged Athletes Foundation to help support athletes with physical challenges. 

In April 2020, Smoothie King teamed up with Under Armour to offer free trial subscriptions for customers left without accessible or affordable fitness options when COVID shuttered gym doors. 

Last year, Smoothie King partnered with Gabby Douglas, a three-time Olympic gold medal gymnast, to launch a Hydration Watermelon smoothie with a proprietary electrolyte blend and a Stretch & Flex smoothie line containing collagen, which helps support joint health and flexibility. 

“What we do is very different from Jamba or Tropical Smoothie or any other smoothie shops in our country, because while they promote watermelon or acai smoothies, which is flavor-driven, our smoothies are very functionally driven with specific goals,” Kim says. 

That means a lot of its new products don’t have flavors in their names, such as The Activator Recovery smoothie line and HIIT Fit smoothies, targeting people who attend high-intensity interval classes such as SoulCycle and Crossfit, Kim says. 

“We draw a different type of crowd. When you’re working out, doing yoga or pilates, where do you go after that?” Kim adds. “You need certain levels of proteins and levels of different nutrients that juice cannot give you after your workout, otherwise it will take more time to repair your body.”

New prototype, personalization aids future expansion

Like many quick-service restaurants in recent years, Smoothie King recently announced a drive-thru-only prototype.

“Today’s guest is looking for accessibility and convenience, and the new model will optimize off-premise channels while furthering our ultimate goal to make the brand more accessible, best support franchisees, drive revenue and meet the needs of our on-the-go guests,” Harmon says. 

 Designed with the help of Smoothie King franchisees and the operations team, the prototype stands at approximately 800 square feet and features a traditional drive-thru lane on one side of the building, with a lane dedicated to online ordering and third-party delivery on the other. 

“We’re trying to give more choices,” Kim says. “If they want to order through the app or kiosk, they should, or talk to us in person, they should be able to. How do we recognize them no matter what and say, ‘welcome back, this is the smoothie you used to get, and you can choose many ways to contact us.’”

Additionally, a pick-up window and outdoor seating will be on the front of the exterior.  However, Kim still asks team members to deliver smoothies directly to customers’ hands, versus leaving the drink on the pick-up counter. 

“We actually deliver to your hands, so you feel like we are coming out of our operation line and into their territory to hand out the product,” he says. “Plus, the brand still writes out customer names on cups by hand to showcase that personal touch, versus other brands that print stickers. It’s the little things, but two steps more will make a big difference.”

Since Chris Bremer joined the team in July as chief development officer, the franchise has penned agreements to expand its footprint in key growth markets, such as the Upper Midwest and Central Atlantic regions, plus Colorado and Texas. 

In addition to signing more than 145 new deals this year, Bremer says Smoothie King is poised for new development in cities like Baltimore, Washington D.C., Cleveland, Cincinnati, Phoenix, Las Vegas Denver, New York, and Charlotte, North Carolina. Bremer touts the brand’s low-labor model and basic buildout to attract first-time small business owners as well as experienced operators, and also lists a bevy of incentives for veterans, first responders, and more.

Beverage, Design, Drive Thru, Fast Casual, Franchising, Growth, Health & Wellness, Menu Innovations, Web Exclusives, Smoothie King