Health-forward restaurants typically market around the quality of their food—spotlighting fresh ingredients, functional benefits, and their commitment to avoiding things like additives and artificial sweeteners. Most consumers expect to pay a premium for those attributes, giving better-for-you brands a certain level of flexibility when it comes to pricing. That dynamic has become more precarious as higher commodity and labor costs eat away at margins and make profitability an uphill battle. 

Clean Juice cofounder and CEO Landon Eckles says costs have been trending upward for a while, starting with paper goods in 2022, followed by meat, dairy, and produce in 2023.

“Everything we bring into the restaurant is certified organic, and of course, that’s seen a huge rise in costs as well,” he says. “We kind of got hit everywhere. It’s been like that for a lot of brands, but healthier brands in particular just don’t have cheaper options they can turn to without lowering the nutritional integrity.”

The company last year marketed around price for the first time with its “$6 Summer” LTO. It featured seven products, four of which were new, for under $6. Now, it’s running a pick-two menu where guests pick a smoothie and half sandwich for under $13. 

“We’re starting to be more sensitive and talk about price,” Eckles says. “With health and wellness, I think the focus is always going to be more on what you offer and less on what you charge, but at the same time, we have to be conscious of what’s going on in the marketplace.”

Instead of taking pricing as a brand, Clean Juice is working with franchisees to identify items that are underpriced or overpriced in their specific markets, he adds. It also is making some changes to the menu to help offset cost pressures. The juice bar franchise is cutting single-use ingredients when possible and prioritizing SKUs that can be used across multiple categories. It also is eliminating slow-moving items to cut down on waste and cap unnecessary expenses.

Labor inflation poses an even bigger challenge. Eckles says the average starting wage for a worker in the brand’s home state of North Carolina has doubled since the first store opened a decade ago. 

“Our menu prices certainly have not doubled since we started, so the biggest challenge is figuring out how to continue paying people a good wage without pricing ourselves out of the industry,” he says.

Clean Juice added a tipping prompt to its POS to support employees. On average, they’re seeing anywhere from an extra $3 to $5 per hour in tips alone. Other initiatives, like incentives for guests to order through the mobile app and a self-order kiosk program, are unlocking labor efficiencies inside the store. 

Playa Bowls is striking a similar balance between pricing, menu engineering, and labor optimization to navigate inflation. CEO Dan Harmon says just about every fruit and vegetable found in the restaurant has been challenged at one point or another. That means the açai bowl chain has to tread lightly when responding to those pressures with price increases. 

Take blueberries as an example. When costs for that ingredient nearly tripled earlier this year, Playa Bowls couldn’t just raise the price of a blueberry smoothie threefold and call it a day.

“Will some consumers pay more for a better-for-you product? The short answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean we have free reign on pricing,” Harmon says. “You still have to make sure you aren’t passing everything onto the guest because the pushback can be really quick if you mess with the balance too much.” 

Playa Bowls took approximately 5 percent pricing on a handful of in-store items and 3 percent pricing on third-party delivery menus last year. It also ensured stores have the right inventory management tools in place to keep food waste at a minimum. And while it hasn’t made any menu cuts or ingredient substitutions, it’s been finding opportunities to highlight more profitable items and steer guests away from pricier ingredients. 

The Playa Rewards platform is offering some help on both the pricing and the labor front. Harmon says engagement data and direct communication with the program’s nearly 2 million members help shape decisions around where and when elevated costs are passed down to customers. 

“Over 40 percent of our sales come from loyalty guests,” Harmon says. “That’s a big deal because those customers know what they want and order ahead, so team members can have it ready when they walk in. That makes it easier for them to operate locations and helps us anticipate their needs.”

Salad and Go is using its hyper-efficient supply chain and labor model to keep prices low. Products are delivered straight from the farm to central kitchens, where team members prep, clean, and cut ingredients that are sent to stores daily. It currently has one central kitchen in Phoenix that serves the Southwest, with a second coming to Dallas that will cover as far as Atlanta and the Midwest. CEO Charlie Morrison says each can support as many as 400 units. 

“With most of the prep done off-site at the central kitchens, it takes smaller spaces and fewer in-store team members to assemble the meals,” he says. 

The chain isn’t immune from inflation and has taken some small pricing actions to offset higher costs. Chicken, beef, produce, and diesel are some key areas on Morrison’s radar. He says Salad and Go’s sourcing and distribution teams have contract management strategies in place with supplier partners to avoid fluctuations when possible. Keeping an eye on factors like weather, seasonality, governmental policy, and farmer planting intentions helps with planning ahead to avoid major hikes, too. 

The low back-of-house labor requirements enable the company to pay its workers competitive wages while maintaining an affordable price point for customers, delivering on its mission to “eliminate the conflict between accessibility, affordability, and wellness.” The company offers 48-ounce salad bowls filled with mixed greens and protein for under $7. 

Morrison says that isn’t just cheaper than most better-for-you menu prices. It’s also more affordable than the value meal options found at many traditional fast-food locations.

“Our supply chain and centralized labor model, coupled with a targeted distribution footprint, ensure the freshest ingredients are delivered to our stores,” Morrison says. “Our operational efficiency means value gets passed down to our guests so we can offer a radically better price on high quality, craveable, healthy food.”

Consumer Trends, Fast Casual, Food, Menu Innovations, Story, Clean Juice, Playa Bowls, Salad and Go