Raw fruits and vegetables are often an afterthought in restaurants. But at Freshii, those ingredients are the main event, says Andie Shapira, who leads the chain’s menu innovation and development.

“To me, it makes perfect sense: Whenever you cook fruits and vegetables, you’re killing the natural enzymes they have,” Shapira says. “You’re deactivating natural enzymes and vitamins and minerals, and they don’t have the same effect on your body as they would raw.”

But there are challenges that come with raw foods. For some, they are difficult to digest. Raw produce also spoils quickly if menu items and flavor combinations aren’t a hit. It’s Shapira’s job to make sure they are.

What are some innovative ways to keep raw food interesting for consumers?

Juicing is a huge trend right now. To actually get all the nutrients you need from fruits and vegetables, you’d have to eat a ton of fruits and vegetables every day. Juicing is a great way to supercharge your nutrient fix. You can put in carrots, cucumber, and a head of broccoli, and really get all the nutrients you need from fruits and vegetables in a more efficient way.

One interesting thing we do with some of our raw veggies is the way we present them. For instance, we have red beets on our menu, but we serve them as a beet slaw. We shred them and create a slaw and combine it with carrots and cabbage; it’s basically a big, raw slaw. It’s really delicious and one of our most popular ingredients as a topping. We toss it with a little red vinegar and oil. There’s also our Green Wraps. Instead of a whole-wheat tortilla, guests have the option of ordering their wrap or burrito in a collard green. We blanch our collard greens for 15 seconds so they are softer and easier to eat.

What trends are you experimenting with right now?

One future trend with raw food that we’re working with is fermenting. Right now in our test kitchen, we are looking at things like kimchee. Cooking cabbage or any raw vegetable kills many of the vitamins, minerals, and natural enzymes, but when you ferment the cabbage, your body absorbs all the essential nutrients, and it’s much easier to digest. A raw food diet is great and wonderful, but if you have digestive issues, it can be rough on the stomach. Having it in a fermented form provides you with a hefty dose of probiotics, which are good bacteria, and that makes it a lot easier to digest.

What else are you up to in the test kitchen?

We’re in the preliminary stages of using our raw, leftover ends of fruits and vegetables to make broths. We do end up boiling them, but we’re trying to find ways of limiting our wastage of these raw foods.

How important is it to Freshii to pursue local and organic fruits and vegetables?

Very important. We try to source locally whenever we can. It oftentimes depends on the season. Four times a year, we launch LTOs, and when we promote these items, we try to look at what fruits and vegetables are in season at the time. A new LTO may be around a seasonal produce item that we can use—for the summer, something like peaches, and in the fall, things like pumpkin.

Do you ever have items that go off the menu once the season ends?

We don’t have a seasonal menu. If we can’t source it locally, we’ll find a way to get it elsewhere. But our goal is to source locally and organic whenever possible.

What food safety issues are presented in using fruits and vegetables?

Not too many people have allergies to vegetables; fruits are a different story. We’ve never really had a problem with that because it’s always customizable. If someone did have an allergy, she would be able to design her meal without it or substitute a fruit or vegetable for another ingredient. We never say no. If customers have an allergy, we always accommodate them.

Is there any particular training employees need to receive in handling fruits and vegetables?

Fruits and vegetables, no. It’s more meat products. But we do have a very rigorous training session here at Freshii that we go through. There are strict rules about washing produce to make sure we remove chemicals and pesticides as much as we can. We do have specific ways that we wash them and cut them.

How can you make your fruit and veggie sourcing more cost effective?

There are always new trends on our radar, and I feel like right now raw foods are very relevant, so we’re trying to act on that as much as we can. We’re constantly innovating and looking at ways to incorporate a raw food diet into our restaurant.

Fast Casual, Food Safety, Menu Innovations, Story, Sustainability, Freshii