Technology | February 2016 | By Jessie Szalay

Inside Freshii’s Tech Incubator

Healthy chain Freshii enlists tech companies to improve everything from menu and payment to refrigeration and seating.
Chicago fast casual develops tech projects in entrepreneur incubator.
1871 CEO Howard Tullman (center) poses with Freshii’s Matthew Corrin (right) and Alex Blair at the 1871 Freshii grand opening. Freshii

At first glance, the new Freshii store in downtown Chicago looks like any other location of the health-oriented chain. It sports vibrant digital menuboards, sculpted wood tables, and industrial-chic glass chandeliers hanging from an exposed ceiling. Huge, white letters in a friendly font proclaim, “Eat. Energize.,” which is the Toronto-based fast casual’s motto.

But signs with challenges like “How will you use tech to innovate payment?” hint that this Freshii is doing a lot more than serving wraps and bowls.

This Freshii is located in 1871, a well-known tech hub in central Chicago. Hundreds of tech companies, ranging from marketing to healthcare firms, rent sleek spaces on the 12th floor of a massive art deco building. There, they develop products and bounce ideas off each other. As of late September, 1871 is ground zero for Freshii’s unique tech collaboration initiative, Project Pioneer.

Project Pioneer is a contest that invites entrepreneurs, including those in 1871, to submit ideas for how technology can improve and streamline Freshii. Proposals must fall into one of eight categories: menu, disposal, efficiency, lighting, refrigeration, payment, team, and seating. Chosen ideas are put into practice at the 1871 location and potentially other stores.

Alex Blair, owner of the 1871 Freshii, calls his store a test kitchen. If things go well there, he says, the Project Pioneer idea could be implemented in Freshii’s 30 other Chicago stores. If things go really well, it could be applied system-wide to all Freshii stores in 15 countries. Project Pioneer entrants get credit if their ideas are implemented in stores; compensation and the price of implementation are still being worked out.

“We’re so excited to hear more from our customers and our fans, to let the Freshii fanatics lead the charge with innovating and improving our brand,” Blair says. “It keeps us having a fresh eye on our business, keeping us dynamic and on our toes.”

Pay Your Selfie is one technology product that Freshii has adopted from Project Pioneer. The app, whose developer is headquartered in 1871, pays people a small amount for sending in their selfies. Brands working with the app use the photos to learn more about their customers. The Pay Your Selfie team heard about Project Pioneer during the 1871 Freshii launch event and immediately filled out the application, says Kristen Holman, cofounder of Pay Your Selfie. They pitched Pay Your Selfie as a menu innovation and showed the Freshii team how their app could benefit the business.

“Freshii knows what happens when [customers] are in the store. What they don’t know is what their customers do when they’re outside of the store,” Holman says. Through the Pay Your Selfie partnership, Freshii can see other foods people eat when trying to be healthy on the go and ask if the menu aligns with customers’ tastes and perceptions of healthy foods. For example, if the selfies show customers drinking a lot of juice or eating mangoes regularly, Freshii can tweak its menu to feature more juices or salads with mango.

Freshii was sold on Pay Your Selfie. “They submitted it, we loved it, we accepted it, and we’re doing it,” Blair says. “We’re about to get started on an even bigger partnership with them because we’ve loved the results so far.”

At press time, the 1871 Freshii has only been open four months and Pay Your Selfie is the only Project Pioneer enterprise to have been implemented. Others are under consideration. Another of Blair’s favorite suggestions so far is a program in which digital menuboards are updated in real time. Freshii’s ingredients are so fresh that it can be challenging to keep everything in stock, so an instantly updated menu would keep customers informed.

Project Pioneer has yielded a wealth of submissions. Blair estimates that about 20 percent are from customers who have great ideas but not concrete solutions. Seventy percent are from members of 1871 who suggest ways Freshii might use their technology. The remaining 10 percent of submissions are from people with no connection to 1871.

It’s no coincidence that the majority of submissions come from 1871. Its hundreds of techies are also especially open to and familiar with the kind of collaboration that Project Pioneer encourages. Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871, credits the environment.

“[Between] the demos, the new technologies, we’ll do a thousand events this year,” he says. “I think that’s how these conversations get started. That’s really the driver.”

Freshii has a history of embracing innovation, with a noted social media presence and involvement in other tech startup initiatives such as the Fresh Startups program, which it launched with innovation firm Kinetic Café in 2013. More recently, Freshii sought out a position in 1871 because of the hub’s innovation, energy, and variety of tech fusion initiatives, Blair says.

Part of what’s made the Freshii partnership with 1871 successful is the two parties’ similar philosophies toward tech. Tullman says that, like Freshii, 1871 looks at traditional paradigms with fresh eyes.

Blair sees technology being integral to Freshii’s continued success and growth. Technology can help educate Freshii’s customers on healthy foods and how long it takes to make the meals. It can also shorten prep time and bring in more local foods. “Anything we can do to make [the process] more efficient and productive will only benefit the consumer in the end,” Blair says.

It also benefits other innovators.

“I wish that everybody would ask for ideas,” Holman says. “This is a one-of-a-kind company for saying, ‘Please come to us with your innovations, we’re really curious.’ And that is incredibly refreshing.”

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