Wan Kim started as a Smoothie King franchisee back in 2003 in South Korea. After building his repertoire to more than 100 locations in eight years, he approached Smoothie King founder Steve Kuhnau regarding the possibility of acquiring the business. In July 2012, Kim did just that; he became the brand’s CEO and owner and moved to the U.S. to lead the brand into a new phase.

In 2015, Kim launched Smoothie King’s Cleaner Blending initiative, a commitment to blend a cleaner, more nutritious product. Under this plan, all smoothies would use less sugar and be free of artificial colors, preservatives, and flavors. But the change to a healthier menu has not been without obstacles. The 1,000-unit-plus brand has faced supplier snags and also risked alienating its loyal customer base with the changes. The transition has been slower than initially anticipated, but Kim is hopeful for a cleaner future. QSR talked with him about Cleaner Blending, the challenges the brand has faced since launch, and how he plans to win over new guests in 2019 and beyond.

Blending better

We started Cleaner Blending because we thought there was a demand in this country for transparency. People want to know what’s going into the blender. Right now, a little over 200 locations have transitioned, and there are more than 700 stores that are not yet on the Cleaner Blending.

We do not use any powder to enhance the flavor—it’s for the nutritional benefits—but I don’t know whether people understand that a lot of nutritional powders actually include artificial preservatives, flavor, or color. We eliminated all of those, as well as added sugar, GMOs, and gluten.

We have a lot of fruits, which already have natural sugar in them. As a brand, we have to figure out how to make a product that’s sweet enough coming from fruits alone. We launched a Wild Blueberry smoothie this year, sourced from Canada and Maine. We used those wild blueberries—the whole fruits—in our blender. The reception from our existing guests was overwhelming; people really enjoyed the flavor of the real wild blueberries.

Less sugar, more problems

We see two reactions to the Cleaner Blending initiative. One is, we see positive reactions. People say they love the taste. Others argue that they don’t like it; they want their sugar back. We tell them they can always tell us to add the sugar back to their order. We always encourage people to customize their product.

The first market we launched in was Dallas, and, unfortunately, we changed everything in one day. It was pretty shocking to our existing guests. We learned from that, and now we are being a little more cautious. We are changing literally one by one, so people will learn the Cleaner Blending as the ingredients are slowly replaced. We do not want to shock our guests in one day with too many changes.

New guest goals

It’s always the question of, How do we please our existing guests? There’s got to be a balance of how many changes we make to ensure we keep our existing guests, but our tactics should be good enough to bring the new guests in, too. I think that’s a fine line. We’ve been open since 1973. We actually have a lot of guests from the old crowd and the young crowd. Every day, you have to look at the data, you’ve got to think about it, and then you’ve got to tweak it.

Right now one good thing is we do really see both categories are evenly spread between our Fitness, Slim, Wellness, and Take a Break options. Our meal replacement smoothies keep going up in sales. We do believe about one-third of our customers are coming to Smoothie King and choosing our meal replacement smoothies.

We took the initiative with Cleaner Blending, and we are changing ourselves to accommodate what millennials want, which is the freedom to customize. They say, “I’m going to do this as one of my meals today, whether it’s going to be for breakfast or lunch. I’m going to have it as a smoothie so that I can balance my diet.”

Our coffee smoothie made from cold-brew coffee in the morning is great because you don’t have to be messy while you’re driving, but you’re still getting caffeine; you are still getting nutrients you need in the morning.

Since I bought this company, we have already reduced more than 35 percent of calories from our products. And now, with the Cleaner Blending initiative, we believe our products are even healthier. If you’re choosing Smoothie King regularly, you are choosing a healthier alternative to McDonald’s or Starbucks. You’re choosing a better product for you. We are proud of that.

Business Advice, Story, Smoothie King