Editor’s note: At this year’s National Restaurant Association Show, QSR caught up with restaurant executives to get their take on 2023’s biggest topics and what’s on the mind of operators. We’ll share their insights and observations from the floor, thoughts on the future, and what matters most headed into the back half of the year and beyond.

Past interviews:

Geoff Alexander, president and CEO of Wow Bao

Starbird CEO Aaron Noveshen

Taziki’s Marketing Leader Julie Wade

Craveworthy Brands CEO Gregg Majewski

Wienerschnitzel Operating Chief Rusty Bills

SpotOn Chief Product Officer Bryan Solar

Bubbakoo’s Leader Bill Hart

Give us your show rundown.

More than anything, I’m here for products. We have been around for 25 years and one of the things that has kept us continually relevant in our category is coming up with new products and LTOs on a regular basis. New product news—that’s what gets awareness; that’s what customers like. It gives them something new to try and keeps them coming back on a regular basis. So really, new ingredients and things that could go well and complement either our existing product line of smoothies or juice or bowls—we recently introduced a line of avocado toasts. That’s a great platform to expand upon. We’ve got the bread in-store now. What else can we put on that bread to make it complementary to our existing products and that taste phenomenal? For us, flavor is first.

What do you think of the smoothie/juice/bowl space these days? Not sure there’s a category out there that went from niche to mainstream as fast the last five years or so.

It used to be just juice bars. Super healthy focused. You still have that. You have the ultra, ultra healthy and they’re mostly local or regional players that are over-the-top where the true, true die-hards of the juice category go to get their juices. I think the benefit of being in a category that continues to grow is that it creates additional awareness for the product overall for the consumer. And it positions smoothies as being a healthy alternative. Now, the challenge of that is people say healthy juice, healthy smoothies, or healthy bowls, and you go in and you look at the product and it’s mostly syrups and mixes, which we’re the complete opposite. It’s either fresh or IQF fruits—totally, totally different. So that’s the only challenge, and the bad part is you have some of these players coming onboard that are presenting themselves as healthy. And being in that category, you automatically have that healthy halo. But when a consumer goes in and says, ‘Oh, this is a smoothie.’ I think the consumers are smarter than that and they realize. They see syrups going in and stuff like that. There’s a difference. 

I guess, overall, it makes it more challenging, but I love a challenge because that means we have to do better. I think for a company our size—about 100 stores—we look, and no discredit to [CEO] Wan [Kim] at Smoothie King or [CEO] Charles [Watson] at Tropical Smoothie, all great companies, great players. But truly there is such a distinct difference in the way our brand looks, from a point-of-sale, point-of-purchase perspective. And that gets truly delivered with the product. We truly deliver on the promise of what we’re showing to customers. That’s a differentiator I feel. I think, for us in the category, specifically for Robeks, we have to find the balance of healthy and flavorful. We’re about taste. No. 1, it has to taste amazing. Every product that we offer. So if we can do that and then, having that healthy message at the same time, with the right ingredients, that’s what’s going to continue to differentiate us between some of the other, again, great players in our category.

The bowl category in particular interests me because the health messaging is so disjointed. It’s either amazing or it’s frozen sugar. 

I used to be at Robeks in the mid-2000s as director of marketing. We got into the açaì market really early with the guys who started, Sambazon. I remember the two brothers and going down to their offices. They were really passionate about the product and discussing the Amazon cooperatives that they’ve got to get the actual product here. And since then, the açaì space has become crowded. But I think consumers also realize there is a difference in the taste. There’s opportunity to expand that bowl category. Not just açaì. Recently, we took one of our smoothies, which is called “Nuts About Protein,” has a little bit of coffee, peanut butter, cinnamon, just an amazing product, and we made that into a bowl, where we topped it with cacao nibs and some strawberries and fresh almonds. It’s a bowl but it’s not an açaì bowl. I think if you have that vessel that makes it easy for people to eat and you’re about good nutrition and good product quality and flavor and taste, you can do some unique things.

Have you seen a boost in interest for immunity products?

During COVID, nobody as marketers—you don’t learn about how to do something like that; in a crisis how to completely change how your company does business, and your messaging. But we made the decision to take the high road. A lot of organizations pandered to the consumer and I think went overboard in some cases. We did two things during COVID. No. 1, we transitioned our supplements, per se, which we’ve had since the beginning in 1996, proprietary, ultra high-quality supplements that are made for us. And we transitioned them to ‘boosts.” So the message was, you shouldn’t have to supplement your Robeks product with anything because you have all the right ingredients. But if you want to boost it a little bit, you can add immunity or you can add multi-vitamin. So we did that. And then we took a couple of our products that were very high in immunity and we just moved them to the front of the line. We said, ‘join the immunity community,’ and that was it. Sales did really well, and our POP was very clean and simple. It wasn’t an alarm bell saying you’ve got to drink this to avoid getting COVID a second time. It was successful. To be honest, we saw, and continue to see, a very solid trajectory for our category because I think people realize that there are some benefits to increasing your immunity, increasing your system, your body system, with a little bit more healthier fruits and vegetables, and things like that.

How many units do you have now?

As of today (in May), we have 95. We’ll have 100 by the end of the summer. Our AUVs are incredible. The top percentile is pushing over $1 million. And the look and feel of our stores have evolved. We’re incorporating Harmony, which has been part of our logo for years. So now we’re starting to implement her and give her a voice. We just added her to our menu with a little bit of an explanation as to who she is. We used to have a tagline, ‘Flavor and Health in Harmony.’ That’s really what it’s all about. Were flavor first and it’s healthy. We think that’s a harmonious combination.

Consumer Trends, Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, Restaurant Operations, Story, Robeks