Before getting into Nékter Juice Bar’s major growth announcement, president and CEO Steve Schulze wanted to make one thing crystal clear: Everything about the brand’s future begins with its past. Since opening its first store, in Costa Mesa, California, seven years ago, Nékter hasn’t exactly scaled in a hurry. But that’s not due to a lack of opportunity. 

“Too many brands try to accelerate their growth prior to being ready,” Schulze says. “… Before growing, we wanted to understand how a restaurant was run every step of the way. I think that patience has paid off.”

Currently there are 91 units open in six states. About half of those are franchises. Before the year is over, Nékter will hit the 100-store mark and open its first East Coast restaurants in Cornelius and Lake Norman, North Carolina. But that’s modest compared to what’s coming. Nékter is expecting to debut more than 75 restaurants in 2018 alone.

This lofty number is only part of the growth story as well. More than 150 stores are under development and seven new markets (Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Del Ray Beach, and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Tucson, Arizona; and Stockton, California) are on tap for next year. This year’s growth includes five new markets (Utah; Forth Worth and Houston, Texas; North Carolina, and Washington).

Needless to say, the gloves are off for Schulze and the brand he built from a desire to create a place where people “could begin their day with the perfect freshly made green juice.”

“For us, our goal was to reinvent the juice space the way Starbucks and others reinvented the coffee space,” Schulze says.

Returning to the brand’s history, Schulze says Nékter approached its progress in steps. First the company built a handful of corporate stores, and once the system hit double-digits, he felt the concept was ready to explore franchising. Nékter ordered six franchises in 2012 and then sat on the growth for two years to see how it unfolded.

In 2015, Schulze says he finally felt comfortable exploring and expanding the franchise initiative.

“I just don’t think a lot of brands are ready, either with the infrastructure or people or having an understanding of the systems,” he says. “Once we were at 40-plus stores and had half a dozen franchisees doing extremely well, we decided to really start a franchise initiative. We had been getting inquiries for a long time, but I think when people grow they also have to be cognizant and strategic on where they’re growing and how they’re growing.”

The idea was to start in the West and Southwest, from San Francisco through Southern California to Texas, Arizona, and now into Florida, and the Carolinas. And Schulze is a firm believer in dropping multiple stores into a market when the move is made. Additionally, the idea will be to stretch the franchise system and widen the gap between company-owned stores and those franchise locations. He expects the system to eventually reach 80–90 percent franchised in time.

However, retaining some corporate base will be crucial, Schulze says. “Having that infrastructure, from the general managers to the district managers to the regional managers to the support team, marketing, finance, and all aspects of it. We really need to understand all facets,” he says.

Not to mention, those corporate stores are a great source of revenue.

“We can take lessons we’ve learned through our corporate locations—a lot of the experiences these franchisees are going through or have been through or may go through are experiences over the last five or seven years we’ve already experienced,” Schulze says. “It’s easy for us to help them quite quickly and I think it’s very important. And I’m surprised more people don’t put more corporate locations in.”

Lately, the franchise inquires have come from more experienced operators. Schulze says Nékter is a concept many find desirable since it can instantly diversify the portfolio of a multi-unit operator. Also, this health and wellness trend isn’t exactly going out of fashion anytime soon.

The No. 1 factor right now, in addition to the obvious metrics, like capital and prior industry experience, is culture. “The last thing you want to do is have somebody who doesn’t believe in your mission or what you’re trying to achieve or accomplish,” Schulze says.

Schulze has seen the demographics of the juice world morph in recent years. He says young consumers, even high schoolers, see juice as being in vogue. On the other side of the meter, seniors are far more conscientious of their health than they were in years past, and are flocking to the movement.

And people on each side of the equation use the brand’s loyalty app, which launched in 2016. A catering program arrived in March to serve anywhere from six to 100 or more people.

Schulze is a believer of on-brand, not on-trend menu innovation. For example, Nékter is now serving Power Pancakes that fit with its mission. They offer some texture to go along with the other options currently offered, such as cold-brew coffees, cold-pressed juices, acai bowls, pitaya bowls, smoothies, and juice cleanses.

“People enjoy it and it’s on point as far as the brand and not a shift from the brand and what we normally do,” Schulze says. “That’s the way we look at each category, whether it’s morning, lunch or night. What are we trying to achieve with it? And if we can’t check all those boxes I don’t think it makes sense to move forward. You can’t alienate your base. You need to be true to your base and try to provide an honest product for them.”

As far as where Nékter will go next, Schulze says no move will be made without thinking about the brand’s standards and infrastructure. Given the amount of produce Nékter moves through, the market will need to make sense from several logistical angles.

“I think that’s part of the strategy: To grow not just for growth’s sake,” he says. “We’re going to open where we can deliver exactly to our standards, and we can offer the same best-in-the-space product that we always have.”

Fast Casual, Franchising, Growth, Health & Wellness, Story, Nekter Juice Bar