Saladworks recently opened its first North Carolina location with the help of a franchisee who hopes to preach the benefits of healthy food in barbecue country.

Unmesh Patel opened his first of three planned Saladworks units on March 9 in the food court of The Streets at Southpoint mall in Durham.

“It’s taken a while to break into the Southern mentality with healthy foods,” Patel says. “Down here, you don’t really have many choices for healthy foods. … That’s one of the main reasons I figured this market would be good.”

Patel moved from New Jersey to the Raleigh/Durham area earlier this year to open the mall unit, a storefront sandwiched between Subway and Five Guys that the Saladworks corporate team, including founder and CEO John Scardapane, helped him scout out.

A former Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee in New Jersey, Patel says he decided he wanted a change of scenery a few years ago—both in geography and brand. He says he felt that Subway and Dunkin’ were on the decline, and he wanted a fresh start.

A Saladworks store was open behind his parents’ house, he says, and when shopping for potential brands to franchise, he was attracted to the size and personal nature of the salads-and-soups company.

“It has 100 stores, but the main thing is the home office felt like a family,” he says. “I never met [Subway CEO] Fred DeLuca, I never met [Dunkin’ Donuts CEO Nigel Travis]; to meet John and Paul [Steck, president], that was a big thing.”

Scardapane, Steck, and Jena Henderson, vice president of brand services for Saladworks, are personally visiting with each new franchisee to help them with site selection and laying the groundwork for stores.

Patel says the connection with Steck was particularly helpful, as Steck used to be a franchisee for both Burger King and Au Bon Pain. Having someone on the corporate team who knows the ins and outs of being a franchisee, he says, is a big plus.

“A lot of times, in this industry, your boss could tell you one thing, but when you’re down in the field, it’s a different story,” he says.

Though operating in a mall is different than what he’s used to, Patel says he’s quickly learning the operational differences presented by the situation. Marketing, for instance, is tricky because he can’t put employees out in front of the store to draw in customers, he says.

Outside the mall, however, Patel says he plans to market to local businesses with Saladworks’ catering and delivery options. He also hopes to push the healthy benefits of the brand’s menu through programs at nearby Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Of course, Durham isn’t just barbecue country; it’s also basketball country. And with March Madness in full swing, Patel may have to wait a bit until he can fully promote his new healthy eating store.

“For the last Duke game, the mall was dead; there was nobody here,” he says. “I was kind of shocked, it was like somebody pulled the emergency breaks on the people. “

By Sam Oches

Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Fast Casual, Growth, News, Saladworks