When Sharon Mays opened her quick-service concept Baby Greens in Austin, Texas, in 2004, it took customers a little while to get used to it. Gone was the hamburger joint that filled the space previously, replaced with a drive-thru restaurant serving made-to-order salads and wraps.
“When we very first opened, there was an amount of time where we had to explain why we didn’t have ‘regular lettuce,’ which I learned meant iceberg lettuce; people were kind of still in that old-school salad-bar mentality,” Mays says. “I spent a lot of time thinking about the menu to create something to attract people, whether they were vegetarians or meat eaters, or whether they were looking for something healthy, or just John Q fast-food eater. So when we really hit that point of having a wide cross-section of people, that really let me know that we were on the right path.”
Around six months after the restaurant opened, it took off, and sales started increasing 100 percent year over year. Mays expanded the brand to two more locations, and had a plan to begin franchising.
Then it all came to a halt in 2009. The business wasn't on the track Mays had hoped for, and she shuttered all locations. The many loyal customers thought they may never eat at Baby Greens again.
“We had a great customer base, our food costs were low, our profit margins were healthy, all those things were great. It was really some infrastructure issues. I had really great staff, but they weren’t really growing with my company, which is something that I really wanted,” Mays says. “When you buy a turn-key business, you need all of the tools. I think that many restaurateurs would say some of their biggest challenges are with the staff, and if we have franchisees buying into this concept and having problems with our staff, how do we develop? How do we grow? How do we promote? Had I gone that path and not been able to provide those answers or resources, it would have ultimately imploded, because you cannot grow a brand if you cannot grow your team.”
In the eight years since it closed, salad concepts have become ubiquitous in markets across the country, from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. And more salad concepts have started to recognize the potential in drive thru; Denver's MAD Greens and Arizona's Salad and Go are among the companies starting to sling salads through the outdoor window. Mays and Baby Greens, it turns out, were way ahead of the curve.
(Want to explore more innovative Austin fast casuals? Check out 15 of them here.)
Mays always had reopening Baby Greens on her mind, and wanted to tweak the business practices to make expansion possible and to allow for her employees to grow within the company. And now, 13 years after she opened the first Baby Greens, her dream is back on track. With a single new location having opened in the fall in North Austin, Mays is focused on the employees. She is developing a "Baby Greens University," which will allow for employees to develop skills so they can both stay with the company and work up to new roles.
“We want to create opportunities, so that if I have a cashier who I think would be a great manager, she needs to have opportunities to develop her skills,” Mays says. “We might be a small company, but that doesn’t mean we can’t develop employees; that we can’t take someone who has the energy and interest to be a part of the company and develop that so that we can move that person into a step up.”
The new Baby Greens location has two drive-thru lanes, a walk-up window, picnic tables, and an onsite herb garden.
Baby Greens also adapted to a change in consumer sentiment on salad concepts, upgrading menu offerings and offering items that may have seemed alien a decade ago. New salads include the Asian Salad with romaine, kale, edamame, peanuts, carrots, crispy noodles, and tomatoes paired with a spicy peanut dressing, and a Rainbow Salad with a spring mix, red cabbage, pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, avocadoes, carrots, and feta cheese.
“It took us a little while to catch people up with what we were doing, but now the customer base that’s out there is definitely more savvy and doesn’t flinch at kale and the things that we’ve added to the menu this time,” Mays says. “So it’s been a really amazing journey to watch people put one toe in the pool and figure out who we are and realize that they love us, even though we’re vegetables.”