Nature’s Table’s Discovery Day program isn’t a typical way to attract new franchisees. On a Discover Day, potential franchisees fly into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and visit the first-ever Nature’s Table airport store. Then they are whisked down to Orlando, stopping at Nature’s Table locations on Florida’s Turnpike, an Orlando street corner, the RDV Sportsplex, and in other distinct venues.

During these tours, potential franchisees see firsthand the brand’s versatility. While consistent in quality and branding, individual stores have their own personalities, says Rich Wagner, president of Nature’s Table. Layouts, menu items, and throughput speeds all vary from unit to unit. By the end of a Discovery Day, Wagner says, participants are usually excited about the wide possibility of franchising with the brand.

Nature’s Table has been franchising nontraditionally for more than 40 years, setting up stores almost exclusively in malls, airports, and other unique venues. The Orlando-based brand purveys healthy sandwiches and salads through a “flexible footprint model” that makes room for only a few standalone stores. It all began in mall food courts. When management saw crowds of office workers lunching at the Nature’s Table mall locations, they decided to try opening a store in an office building. Today, Nature’s Table units are in almost every nontraditional location you can imagine, from college campuses to gyms to a newly opened store in the Cook Museum of Natural Science in Alabama. “We want to bring Nature’s Table to where you work, travel, shop, and play,” Wagner says.

Opening stores in nontraditional venues can be an extremely effective marketing and expansion strategy, if navigated correctly. The publicity of an airport or travel plaza unit allows brands to be seen by people they would never normally reach, says Stephanie Havard, executive vice president of restaurant development for HMSHost, a foodservice company that manages airport and highway units for brands. Building a presence in a variety of locations opens up new ways for brands to integrate into customers’ lives. Nontraditional venues are often attractive to franchisees because of their flexibility, too, says Bryan Buffalo, vice president of Nature’s Table. “Locations in office buildings can mirror office hours, so franchisees have greater work-life balance,” he says.

But these venues also present a set of significant challenges. Space in nontraditional locations is often much smaller than regular stores. In airports, it can be as small as 800 square feet, Havard says. In the case of Nature’s Table, adjusting to these smaller spaces has been relatively smooth, thanks to a fresh-food menu that doesn’t require a fryer or grill. Equipment costs are low and kitchens can be smaller, and Buffalo says this makes the brand more attractive to landlords.

Furthermore, creative locations often require creative approaches to menu and service. Airports and turnpikes, for instance, require faster throughput, so Nature’s Table has equipped these units with large cases of grab-and-go fare. Office and mall stores have smaller display cases, with a team member making dishes onsite.

“Whether we’re welcoming guests’ home from a long journey or fueling them up for their trip, we believe this is one of the most powerful ways to share the love.” — Michael Kark, Shake Shack’s chief global licensing officer, on airport stores.

Some nontraditional locations can be handled by the right imaginative, adaptable franchisee. But for other locations in these venues—including those in airports and travel plazas—franchisees need to bring in additional management help, such as HMSHost, Havard says. “Many brands are very excited about going to an airport and then realize it will cost $100,000 just to put the proposal required by the airport together, because it will be 4 or 5 inches thick with renderings and layouts,” she says.

Setting up shop in an airport is complex: Airport store construction costs twice as much as standalone stores because it must be done at night. Menu items either need to be added to the menu to fit extensive airport hours or removed to improve speed. The hiring process can take more than a month due to stringent security requirements. Design elements often need to be changed to fit the space, and airport owners, local governments, and other authorities must provide various approvals. Havard says HMSHost allows brands to hand over those complications while still remaining closely involved in the process.

Shake Shack does not franchise units, but when the burger brand decided to open in airports and travel plazas, it relied on an HMSHost partnership. “Partnering with HMSHost enables our nontraditional growth strategy to thrive,” says Michael Kark, Shake Shack’s chief global licensing officer. “The airport environment has different challenges than street-side Shacks and requires a variety of unique ways to approach business and operations, so a strategic partner is key.”

Shake Shack works hand-in-hand with HMSHost during a unit’s development process, Kark says. HMSHost partners attend the same three-month deep-immersion training for Shake Shack management, ensuring that HMSHost-run locations fully understand brand standards. They can produce the same burgers, shakes, and fries as traditional stores; speak to the ingredients on the menu (which Kark says is significant due to increasing interest in food sourcing and standards); and provide the same level of customer service as a street-side Shake Shack.

While the brand works to provide consistent experiences at all stores, it is especially important that transit locations give visitors a good impression. “Transit locations are highly visible and give us the opportunity to introduce Shake Shack to guests who may not be familiar with the brand otherwise. We love having that opportunity,” Kark says. “Whether we’re welcoming guests’ home from a long journey or fueling them up for their trip, we believe this is one of the most powerful ways to share the love.”

Back of House, Customer Experience, Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Restaurant Operations, Story, Nature's Table, Shake Shack