As is often the case for Wan Kim, the franchisee turned CEO of global brand Smoothie King, he approached the company’s latest initiative with a consumer mindset.
“When you think about when people choose McDonald’s versus when people choose Smoothie King, I firmly believe they choose Smoothie King because they feel good about it,” he says. “They’re telling themselves that they made a right choice today and [one they] won’t regret.”
Since 1973, Smoothie King has held a firm place in the mindful-eating discussion. And as its expands past 900 units worldwide, Wan says the brand’s stance becomes even more crucial. It’s why, despite the already firm footing, Smoothie King is investing in an extensive “Cleaner Blending” initiative that’s unfolding in multiple stages.
The centerpiece is the removal of added sugar from more than 50 smoothies, as well as getting rid of artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and added hormones from all smoothie ingredients. The chain is introducing non-GMO fruits and vegetables as well. Smoothie King has already stripped high fructose corn syrup, trans fat, hydrogenated oil, gluten, and ingredients prohibited by any regulatory lists monitored by NSF. The additional changes should take hold by the end of 2018, the company said.
“At the end of the day, we are not only getting rid of all those ingredients and all the things that we say are not good, but we also need to match the flavor,” Kim says. “And at the same time we also need to upgrade the nutrition side of it. So it’s not only, ‘We’re eliminating all this,’ but we also want to make sure all of our products are better—not only by eliminating the stuff, but also by improving the flavor and nutrition side.”
When consumers make the decision to grab a smoothie instead of a burger, Kim says, it’s imperative Smoothie King doesn’t let them down. This is a goal that, if achieved, will bode well for the brand’s longevity. It’s a daily, evolving discussion, he adds. It also inspired the company to finally face an issue so heated in certain circles it has online petitions: Styrofoam cups.
By the end of 2017, Smoothie King will replace the recognizable cups with a new material that is better for the environment. It is currently testing two different replacements, Kim says. “Both are a little bit more expensive than what we’re currently using, but we’re confident we’re going to come out with the best cup for our guests,” he says. “It’s important. We don’t want them to say, ‘Oh because of the cup I’m not sure whether I made the right decision today.’ That’s why all these changes will just enhance those people’s experience with us.”
Smoothie King has worked on the initiative for more than a year and plans to take another year, at least, to get everything right. Kim says it will take time to ensure vendors are aligned and all appropriate recipes are revised.
He adds it’s been a bit trying at times since the brand is doing so well financially. Around 70 percent of the stores opened last year were by current Smoothie King owners, and the company has shown no signs of slowing down as it approaches triple-digit units.
“It was very difficult to convince our legacy franchisees as well as our existing team members. The first time when we really talked about this they were like, ‘Wan we are doing so well. Why are we taking more risk at this moment? Our same-store sales are good. People are happy.’ But we really talked, discussed it, and then realized for us to stay as a top smoothie brand we need to keep evolving. And to only keep doing that, we need to really hear from our guests on what they want and then start to deliver on that stuff.”
“I think changes are always hard, but changes are always easier when you are doing well.”