It’s one thing to revitalize a menu, upgrade unit décor, or take on a new marketing platform. But changing consumers’ perception of a brand entirely is a completely different story, and it’s one Tropical Smoothie Café is trying to tell.

The 335-plus-unit chain used to be known as a real fruit smoothie–only destination. However, after its acquisition by private investment firm BIP Opportunities Fund in 2012, Tropical Smoothie is now trying to put food on its customers’ minds.

Introducing everything from specialty wraps and sandwiches to grilled flatbreads and salads, the brand’s newfound focus on the food side of the business has helped it grow comparable sales by 4 percent and systemwide sales by $14 million in 2012 alone.

When developing its food offerings, CEO Mike Rotondo says it was essential to keep them in line with the brand’s mantra of “better-for-you food with a tropical twist.”

“It always had to be something that was a match for the brand,” he says. “We didn’t want to just bring in food; we had to bring in food that made sense for Tropical Smoothie.”

Rotondo says the concept’s customers love its fresh, bold, tropical flavors, and the new offerings—like last year’s LTO Sweet Chili Flatbread, an Asian-influenced item with chicken, carrots, and a sweet-but-spicy flavor—satisfy these cravings.

“That speaks to our customer,” he says. “We’re not going to bring in burgers, and we’re not going to bring in things that don’t match what the brand already stands for.”

Other menu highlights include fish and chicken tacos, the highest-selling food items for the brand. Rotondo says customers have responded enthusiastically to the taco as a new food carrier.

“It used to be a wrap, and then we had a flatbread,” he says. “Now we have these nice little [tacos] and you buy them in pairs. … It’s a great portion size.”

The brand also has hybrid food-smoothie items, Rotondo says, with the new Spinach and Kale Smoothie and Carrot Smoothie, each of which has five servings of fruits and vegetables.

But while food has been a boon for business, Rotondo makes one thing clear: Tropical Smoothie’s namesake item isn’t going anywhere.

“We don’t want to lose the smoothies,” he says, adding that sales are split almost evenly between food and smoothies. “The trick is, How do you grow the food side of the business without pushing away or alienating these hardcore smoothie customers [who] don’t even think about us as food?”

He says the brand’s main mission right now is to extend its newly enhanced food line in a way that still embraces smoothie customers and keeps them coming back.

Rotondo also admits its new menu is surprising to long-time customers, who tend to view the brand simply as a smoothie joint.

“It’s kind of a bad joke, but our food is our best-kept secret,” he says. “Because when people do come in and experience the food, they’re really kind of blown away because they’re thinking, ‘Well, what kind of food does a smoothie place have? They probably have snacks, but they’re not going to have a great wrap or a great flatbread or salad.’

“So getting people to change that perception has been tough,” he adds, “but we’ve basically put our marketing efforts toward food.”

When using in-store merchandising and point-of-purchase materials, for example, Rotondo says 80 percent of the marketing is geared toward food items, while the rest focuses on smoothies.

“Our smoothie customers, they just need a little push, a little nod, to try a new smoothie,” he says. “Whereas with the food, we’ve got to be big and bold about it.”

Rotondo says the brand is continuing to add to its food lineup and is in the midst of planning a taco relaunch this year with new flavors and proteins, possibly including a vegetarian-friendly option.

In April, the brand is also testing new products that Rotondo says “aren’t wraps or sandwiches.”

But product offerings aren’t the only way in which the brand is trying to grow. Rotondo says it plans to open 30–40 new units throughout 2013.

“We see that continuing and probably ramping up more to 40–50 [a year],” he says, “so that within the next four to five years, we see ourselves breaking the 600-store mark.”

By Mary Avant

Beverage, Growth, Menu Innovations, News, Sandwiches, Tropical Smoothie Cafe