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    What it Takes to Be a Fresh Pioneer in Fast Casual

  • Nutritious concepts are sprouting up—and finding success—in regions not traditionally associated with healthy living.

    Coolgreens / Madison Denton
    Oklahoma City may not have a health-forward reputation, but the area has accepted Coolgreens with open arms.

    Health-focused concepts have long thrived, and in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, and Chicago, grain bowls and green juices have become as common a lunch as pizza slices and burritos. It’s a no-brainer since these metros are home to yogis, cross-fitters, weekend warriors—and more than their share of restaurants.

    But in many areas where the fitness-minded lifestyle has been slower to gain traction, nutrition-focused options remain scarce. Nevertheless, some trailblazing fast casuals have not only gone against the grain by opening in less health-conscious locations, but they’ve also flourished, proving that second- and third-tier markets are in fact hungry for such concepts.

    Expect mixed reactions

    Like much of the heartland, Oklahoma City consistently struggles with obesity. By 2009, it had become painfully evident to Coolgreens cofounder Tom Wolfe and CEO Robert Lee that the city’s food offerings mirrored its unhealthy status. As Wolfe trained for a marathon and Lee looked to adjust his diet due to health issues, they made the decision to change the dining scene—a move Lee calls nerve-racking.

    “Our concern was, Is there a reason why this type of option doesn’t exist in Oklahoma City?” he says. That wasn’t the case, though, as the community welcomed Coolgreens into the fold. “It’s incredible to see the success we’ve had in Oklahoma City, and now to be able to replicate that in more markets that don’t currently have similar options,” Lee adds.

    The healthy lifestyle eatery quickly built a devoted customer base, and the company’s success has spurred quick growth to six locations, plus forthcoming expansion plans in the Middle East.

    In similar fashion, health enthusiasts came running when Josh Bullock opened Farmer’s Keep in Philadelphia’s business district in 2015. He says the area lacked options for a quick meal that was healthy, fresh, affordable, and not just salads. Located amid pizza joints, Italian markets, old-school delis, and a fried chicken spot, it was a welcome reprieve for this demographic. But Bullock admits not everyone was charmed.

    “Some people hated it,” he says. “I got emails saying, ‘I just spent $12 on lunch and I’m hungry again two hours later.’ I don’t see those people anymore.” The biggest challenge, Bullock says, has been converting Philadelphia’s less adventurous eaters, who tend to be its older residents. “Some people are just so engrained in their lunch of a hoagie, a big bag of chips, and soda,” he says. “We’re trying to shake things up a little.”

    Las Vegas–based SkinnyFATS shares that same spirit of disruption. With a menu divvied up into the 600 calories or less Healthy Side and the indulgent-yet-quality-driven Happy Side, SkinnyFATS aims to please everybody—whether vegan, Paleo, gluten-free, or none of the above. With five locations and three more slated to open this year, it appears to be working, says SkinnyFATS owner Reed Allen Slobusky.

    Practice extreme flexibility

    Health trends are fleeting, so agility plays a major role in the success of health-focused fast casuals. “We’ve seen people’s ideas of what is healthy change a million times,” Slobusky says. “We’ve done well because we pay close attention to what people are requesting.”

    He adds that the demand for vegan and plant-based offerings has surged as of late. Offerings including bowls, tacos, sandwiches, and all-day breakfast are constantly evolving; SkinnyFATS won’t keep something on the menu just because it worked in the past.

    The gluten-, dairy-, egg-, nut-, and shellfish-free menu at Farmer’s Keep changes bi-monthly—partly as a response to customer demand and partly to reflect the local bounty. Bullock says his chef enjoys the task of crafting a new allergen-free, seasonal menu every two weeks.

    Coolgreens features a collection of chef-crafted signature items, including the top-selling Southwest Spicy Salad with black beans, poblano peppers, avocado, corn, tortilla chips, and Monterey jack cheese.

    But Lee says the restaurants’ build-your-own sandwiches, quinoa bowls, and flatbreads have been the key to success. Allowing guests to customize their meals gives Coolgreens the ability to cater to the ever-expanding list of dietary challenges.

    “We don’t mean to overwhelm guests with a million options, but we want them to know they can get exactly what they want and need to eat,” Lee says.

    Think beyond lunch

    As wholesome ingredients and better-for-you foods become more commonplace, brands with a health halo are finding innovative ways to engage guests outside the lunch hour. In line with its healthy/not-so-healthy shtick, SkinnyFATS serves craft beer, wine, and fresh juice–based cocktails and is open until 9 p.m. to encourage lingering.

    Farmer’s Keep recently opened a rooftop bar where it serves beer, wine, liquor, and a special al fresco menu of small plates. Coolgreens hosts in-store nutrition seminars, cooking classes, and yoga sessions. The brand also teams with local CrossFit gyms and running groups, both as an effort to support like-minded entrepreneurs and to carry out the company mission statement to “sow the seeds of health in every community in which we plant our roots.”

    Lee says these extracurriculars are symbiotic. “We’re creating fun experiences for guests, and for us [the events are] like informal focus groups where people come in and share their opinions and wish lists,” he says.