Transcript of Food & Restaurant Podcast – Creating Interest with Lucas Clarke of MAD Greens

interest, salad, ops, lucas clarke
Transcript of Food & Restaurant Marketing Podcast – Episode: Creating Interest with Lucas Clarke of MAD Greens

[00:00:01] Adam Pierno: All right, welcome back to another episode of Food and Restaurant Marketing. I am so excited today for this conversation because we’re going to be talking to someone from one of my personal favorite brands that I’m actually addicted to and may have to get counseling for. We’re here today with Lucas Clarke who is the– what does your bio-line say? The chief salad juggler, Lucas?

[00:00:52] Lucas Clarke: Yes, I’m the Head Lettuce Juggler at MAD Greens.

[00:00:56] Adam: Is that a self-appointed title or did you have to earn that title overtime?

[00:01:01] Lucas: Definitely, I earned it overtime. I think it really stemmed from the fact that at MAD Greens, we wear a lot of hats, we juggle a lot of different things, and being good at moving on your feet and juggling is key to success over here at MAD Greens.

[00:01:14] Adam: Yes, we’ve touched on that before on some other earlier conversations about how many hats you wear. I have a feeling that’ll come up, but before we dive in if you wouldn’t mind give us just a quick introduction to your history, and your career, and what you’re doing now.

[00:01:29] Lucas: Yes. I started at MAD Greens about 12 years ago, pretty much right out of college. I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder. I’m originally from Portland, Oregon, but got out to Boulder and just couldn’t leave Colorado, it’s just a beautiful place.
So, I started working in the restaurant and started with catering sales, actually. I was the first person hired into the corporate office at MAD Greens. I had a degree in marketing and that led to helping with their website development, and then helping with graphic design, and everything snowballed into– we opened our second restaurant, our third restaurant, fourth restaurant, and just took off from there and started heading up local store marketing which developed into the Head Lettuce Juggler role that I’m in today.

[00:02:16] Adam: [laughs] That’s not your actual title, is it?

[00:02:18] Lucas: No, I mean, a traditional title would be Vice President of Marketing, which is a lot more stodgy, boring-sounding than [crosstalk] here at MAD Greens.

[00:02:28] Adam: I absolutely like your title much better. What we’re going to be talking about today, mostly, I have a feeling this one is going to be one that wanders a bit, so stay with us. What we’re talking about today is creating interest with your dishes and it’s something that rose the top as– Lucas and I had some exploratory calls here. For me, it’s really interesting.
As I said, I was not joking. I am hooked on MAD Greens. There’s one near my home and one near my office here in Scottsdale. I actually crave Mad Greens salads. That is pretty unusual. There’s not that many salads that earn for me. I’m not much of a salad eater, that make me say, “Oh, I have to get in the car right now and go get that.” So, I think –

[00:03:09] Lucas: Adam, what’s your favorite salad at MAD Green?

[00:03:12] Adam: I like the Doc Holliday a lot. That’s probably what I’ll go get after this call.

[00:03:17] Lucas: Nice. Yes, that’s a perfect example of one of those salads that we created with craveability in mind for the Arizona market, for the Scottsdale market. We wanted to have a salad that really had a nod to Arizona and had some citrus notes in there, and then the miso dressing really just brings it all together, one of those things that really just pops from a flavor profile.

[00:03:40] Adam: No, and specifically with that salad, the citrus and then the MAD Spice Pumpkin Seeds. I’m sorry, this is not going to be a 30-minute ad for MAD Spice guys. Just bear with us here while I get my fanboy geekiness out of the way. But the MAD Spice Pumpkin Seeds with the citrus are amazing combination.

[00:03:58] Lucas: Yes, absolutely.

[00:04:00] Adam: That totally works for me. Sometimes, they say, “Would you like regular pumpkin seeds?” I look at them incredulously and I say, “What kind of monster do you think I am? I want those MAD Spice.”

[00:04:13] Lucas: Well, not everybody likes spice. I mean, that’s one of those things that from a craveability standpoint that we noticed. You want to balance spice in a way that it is palatable for almost anybody that walks into the restaurant, that they can order that up and order the MAD Spice Pumpkin Seeds and still be like, “This taste great.” It’s a little bit spicy, even though I’m not somebody who may like spice, but it really creates that craveability factor.

[00:04:37] Adam: Yes. No, that’s a great point and I want to dive right into that topic. So, what you said, I do, I happen to be someone who like spice and I can handle it. But what you said is we try to create something that can be– do you create a craveable dish or an interesting dish with a target person in mind, like this is for people who likes spice, or do you try to figure out a way that it can be a platform that people can build on and add to their own taste?

[00:05:05] Lucas: Yes. So, we look at it from a couple of different ways. We try to add– when we’re building a salad or contemplating a salad, we look at an element of craveability. Whether that’d be a salty, a spicy, or sweet, and we try to balance out one of those main ingredients for the creation of a menu item. With the Doc Holliday happen to be spiced, but with another salad that we did, the [unintelligible 00:05:31], it happened to be a little bit of sweetness with some earthy tones for a winter and fall style salad.
That one actually ended up having dark chocolate in it, as well as a MAD Spice Avocado. So, it had little bit of savoriness on that, as well. We really try to target on that flavor profile when we’re developing a menu item, and then start to test it out with guest and with our employees to see how does this balance with the other things on our menu and how does this fit with the overall flavor profile of the menu items at MAD Greens.
[00:06:09] Adam: That’s great. Does it start with a core– you mentioned MAD Spice Avocados which, to me, are show piece when I get– I can’t remember what the salad is that I get that has that, but I do occasionally get that. I like that they scraped it through the MAD Spice there.

[00:06:25] Lucas: MAD Spice, yes.

[00:06:27] Adam: It’s really exciting. Do you start around a single item that you think is interesting to consumers, or is it really just about flavor and combinations?

[00:06:35] Lucas: Yes. We look at all the ingredients we have at the restaurant and how we can maybe tweak them and make them combinations that would really work. When we want to bring an ingredient that we don’t already have in the restaurant, that takes a little bit more work from a sourcing standpoint and from availability standpoint to make sure we can get enough supply. We ran to this issue with the chocolate that we want to get enough of what we can get to put in the salad.
So, we look at the flavor profile of that menu item that we have at the restaurant and then sort of, “What are the other things we can add into that to make it a craveable [sic] item?” We have so many different ingredients at the restaurant. The flavor profiles are pretty much endless when you have 50 ingredients to work with, and little tweaks here and there; MAD Spice and the avocado, MAD Spice on the pumpkin seeds.
In Texas, we do a salad with MAD Spice Pecans. So, we’re able to tweak the flavors based on just adding a couple of ingredients together.

[00:07:39] Adam: Yes, that’s great. You mentioned sourcing and the chocolate became something maybe difficult to get for a time. I know last year, we had the avocado shortage, which I’m sure–

[00:07:50] Lucas: That was [inaudible 00:07:51], yes. [laughs]

[00:07:52] Adam: Yes, that was a problem for a lot of people. When you think about salads, how much pressure do you try to keep to use the ingredients that are already in the trays and already being prepared at the restaurant level?

[00:08:05] Lucas: It’s definitely a strong consideration because a lot of the fresh preparation techniques that we use at the restaurant require additional training or additional materials at the restaurant level.
So, we really try to be cognizant of making sure that we have something that works in the restaurant, maybe 90% of the ingredients that we’re putting in a salad or a seasonal salad that come from the restaurant. If it’s above and beyond scenario where we’re like, “Hey, we really have to have this type of salmon,” where we’re going to put different flavoring or different rub on it to make the salad really just sing or a different type of hummus that we need to bring in and we need to bring in a different ingredient to make this type of hummus to go in the salad.
Right now, we’re looking at different grain blends. So, those are something that we don’t have in the restaurant currently that we need to source, bring in, figure out how to cook, how to hold, how to serve, all those different elements.
So, it’s a lot faster to come up with salad ideas that are all based on ingredients we have in the restaurant, but sometimes, we’re looking for a little bit different flavor profile, or even customers come up with suggestions that are great, that we want to incorporate, and we need to go and source other ingredients, other items for that.

[00:09:26] Adam: That’s awesome. How often do you take customer suggestions and bringing them to life, I’m sure, is more complex, but even testing them, do you listen actively and take a lot of suggestions or is it more like, “This one is pretty interesting. We should try it.”

[00:09:41] Lucas: Yes. We take a lot of suggestions from our customers. We may not necessarily run with their exact suggestion, but it will give us an idea to tweak something in a way that is better from a preparation standpoint or better from a flavor standpoint in the restaurant. I mean, we’re always all ears when it comes to our guests when it comes to our restaurant team members.
At the home office here in Golden, we don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. We want to make sure that we are listening always and saying, “Hey, this is a really good idea.” It may come from a guest, it may come from a team member, and then we try to incorporate that into the restaurant.

[00:10:20] Adam: That’s fantastic. So, when we’re talking about creating a dish that has interest and will draw people in or what we call a winning dish, there’s a lot of complexity. I mean, we already touched on sourcing. You’ve talked on the culinary side and ops, but all those things have to have to work together, ultimately, to get people, get it to the counter, and get people to order it.

[00:10:43] Lucas: Correct. We have the sourcing, the culinary ideation, the testing, the operational piece, and then the marketing of it really, we don’t want to be marketing too many messages at once.
So, when we have one or two salads on the menu that are new, we’re really pushing those. We’re really getting people to try those. We have a robust sampling procedure in place at the restaurants where we can get people to sample the different new menu items that we have coming out. We really want to make sure that we’re pushing those items as like, “Hey, these are new. These are seasonal. They’re limited time only. We think they’re amazing. We really want you to try it.”
From a marketing standpoint, there’s only so many touchpoints, but in the restaurant to communicate that, and then outside the restaurant, there’s really not a ton of different avenues to get food in people’s mouths or messaging across for a restaurant at our size that we really need to have a constant communication of pounding the drum of, “Hey, this is new. We made this especially for our guests. We think it’s craveable [sic]. We want you to try it.”

[00:11:49] Adam: Yes, and let’s dive into– for those who don’t know MAD Greens, or haven’t seen it, let’s talk a little bit about what the concept is. For me, it’s a fast, casual, approach to salad, but the output is, even more, premium, in my opinion than the typical fast, casual output, which is still an upgrade from QSR. The salads are really substantial and really, the ingredient level of the quality is really high. So, what makes the concept work?

[00:12:24] Lucas: I think you hit on some great points there, Adam. Thank you. I think that one of the main things is the speed at which we’re able to put a salad together.
So, when you walk into a MAD Greens, you walk down a queuing area to a place where you place your order to our greeter. When you look to your left or to your right of the greeter, depending on which way the line flows, you see an array of always fresh ingredients that we spend a lot of time in the morning preparing.
Our managers get to the restaurant four hours before we open and start the fresh prep process whether it’s grilling our own chicken or roasting off our chickens, and pulling our slow roasted chicken, to grilling steak, shrimp, tofu, all that hot prep items in the morning, and then prepping all the veggies and the fruits and everything like that to order.
So, when you see the salad line full first thing in the morning when we open at 10:30, you’re really getting a lot of those fresh ingredients and we’re able to put it together very quickly, as you mentioned, which we shoot for anywhere between 30 and 40 seconds to build a salad per person.
So, pulling in the ingredients into the bowl down the line, gets down to the dressing station where we have 16, 17 dressings that we make from scratch in-house. We dress the salad right there in front of you, bowl it to your point. It’s a very substantial meal. I mean, our big salads are really, really big. In fact, we’ve had numerous guest feedbacks even on a regular-sized salad that that’s an entrée-sized salad at any fine dining restaurant.

[00:14:07] Adam: For sure. I’ve actually just downgraded from the big. I’m on a calorie reduction phase. Yes, I said, “This is actually too much salad. That’s too much. I’m overdoing it.”

[00:14:17] Lucas: Yes. So, that’s the whole line flow and it’s very fast, and then you pay at the register there. We have a couple dessert options and some bottled beverages down at the register and then you’re off in the dining room or off to your next adventure. We really pride ourselves on being really fast and fresh.

[00:14:37] Adam: It is fast. Sometimes there’s a line that slows it down or when new people come, and I can remember this with other fast casual concepts. The first-time people get there, they walk in and they stare at the menu board and they try to figure out, “How do I engage with this? How do I order this? What am I doing?” I watched the staff at your place walk them through, try to guide them and hopefully, they make a good choice.

[00:15:03] Lucas: That’s one of the key points that we train our greeters and our salad artists on is identifying those first-time guests because it does take a little bit of time to work yourself through the menu first off, because you look at the salads on the menu and you think, “Oh, that salad that’s on the menu, I have to get it like that. I have to get the Edgar Allen Poe exactly the way it’s built.” That’s just not the case.
The great thing about MAD Greens is that you are able to customize to your needs. If you see a salad that you really like, that you’re like, “Oh, it has onions in it. Oh, it has beets and I don’t like either of those.” You can switch those out and it’s so easy because we’re building it right in front of you, that’s an easy add.
Nothing is hard and fast in terms of the salad options, it’s basically a recommendation or suggestion on what we think fits best together, but we still have 20% of our guests custom-build their– create their own salads, and then a lot of people just customize on top of that.

[00:16:02] Adam: What do you think is more– gets you a higher, a better NPS score? Is it people ordering off the menu and maybe modifying, or people making their own and picking and choosing what ingredients they want? I have a hypothesis, but I’d love to hear if you have any scores [crosstalk]

[00:16:20] Lucas: I think that people are most satisfied with taking, getting a salad off of the menu, and maybe making one tweak to it, or getting it as is. I think that we’ve seen when people try to get creative and they may not know exactly what flavor combinations go well together, create your own salads can get a little dangerous.
We also have a variety of dressings that may not match up with those flavor profiles that they put together. So, if somebody’s adding oranges with Kalamata olives and just because they may like those two things separately, it doesn’t mean that they should go together in a salad. [laughs]

[00:17:01] Adam: Right, yes, exactly. In fact, they shouldn’t. But I’m sure the salad artist is hesitant to say, “You might not want to mix those two things together.”

[00:17:11] Lucas: You’ll definitely know the seasoned salad artist or the managers may give a suggestion of, “How about instead of this, you try this because I think that would go [inaudible 00:17:21].” Which is a very hard thing to train right out of the gates, but when you’ve worked at MAD Greens for a number of months, you start to understand the flow and the flavors and what works well together, or what people have said really works for them in terms of changing things out, changing out different types of proteins with different salads, or changing out different dressings with different kinds of salads can definitely play to the advantage of the guest.

[00:17:50] Adam: Yes. I think that’s true and I’ve noticed– I can’t remember. I think it was a Doc Holliday changed to a spinach one time. When I was at the checkout, the person taking care of me said, “That’s a really good idea. That seems like it’s going to make a lot of sense.” I was pleasantly surprised that he engaged me like that. The compliment was always nice that, “Oh, he liked my idea.” He was real. He wasn’t just saying it. He was like, “That’s good. That’s going to be really good.”

[00:18:21] Lucas: Yes. I was talking with a guest who switched out goat cheese in a Caesar instead of parmesan. I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” So, I tried it for lunch one day and the Caesar dressing already has parmesan cheese in it. So, the combination of the parmesan, as well as the goat cheese, actually ended up tasting a lot better than I thought it was going to be. You get it from the guests as well as from the team members in terms of great customization options.

[00:18:49] Adam: Yes, I think that’s really one of the cool things, the interactivity. Do you like the word fast casual for your concept or no? Are you something different than fast casual?

[00:18:57] Lucas: I mean, fast casual, that’s a pretty broad grouping.

[00:19:01] Adam: Absolutely.

[00:19:02] Lucas: There has been a little bit of internal shift to define casual, has been floated a couple of times. I’m not sure how I feel about that one, but I think it’s a more accurate representation of what we do because the environment in MAD Greens; it’s a warm environment, it’s bright, it feels clean, fun, and fresh.
I think that elevates the dining experience overall to really give a nod to the fact that our salad recipes, our juice recipes, wraps, and sandwiches really have a fine-dining slant to them. It would be very– if you took our salads and maybe dressed up the words and the copy a little bit, you could see those on any fine-dining menu anywhere.

[00:19:57] Adam: No, I think that’s true. I wonder do people, as a stereotype to the MAD Greens brand or the overarching of the idea of salad as a meal, do people come in expecting a boring experience or what do you see as either a barrier to entry or expectations that the brand addresses upon the first experience?

[00:20:21] Lucas: Yes. I think that one of the big ones is that seeing salad as center of the plate, I think that that’s a relatively new concept to a lot of people. I think a lot of people feel that a lunch or a dinner needs to be entree with medium to heavy protein, a value and maximal calories per dollar, and that’s just not something that we specialize in.
We specialize in quality and speed and you are getting what you pay for in terms of the quality of ingredients and the amount of prep that goes into those ingredients at MAD Greens, but it’s not– we’re not going to win a dollar per calorie for lunch or for dinner. There are lots of options for people who are interested in that but I think that the main thing is that we’re offering something very substantial that is vegetable-centric in terms of lettuce, veggies, and fruits. Definitely, proteins are a part of it but it’s not a major part.

[00:21:26] Adam: Got it. Yes, that makes sense. When you’re crafting for a dish, when we talk about creating interest with dishes and with salads in your case, well, it’s not all salads. Are you thinking about breaking the boring barrier or are you thinking of overcoming what someone standing outside might think when they walk in and order?

[00:21:45] Lucas: Yes, definitely. A great example of that is an LTO, or a Limited Time Offer that we had recently, the Pancho Villa salad which starts off with a base of quinoa and baby greens and we’ve been doing the quinoa and baby greens element or quinoa spinach and kale element for a number of years and it really adds a very robust and a filling substantial meal component to the salads.
When we started with that base and then we also added in some craveable items and some added spice and some chile cilantro lime dressing, that LTO really took off. When we took it off the menu, we heard about it and people were like, “Why did you take that off? That’s my favorite salad, it’s so craveable.”
So, it’s made a resurgence on the menu. I think it was off the menu for five weeks and we listened to the people and we listened to our guests and we said, “But we love this salad, too. There’s no reason we can’t put it on the menu.” So, we put it back on the menu and now everybody’s pretty happy about that.

[00:22:51] Adam: That’s funny. We’re just looking at an article for next week about LTOs and how to make them really work, and that scarcity, bias principle that, “This thing is going to end, so you better come in and get.” is something that we don’t think brands usually push enough and then in your case, they said, “No, we’re going to riot if you don’t put that thing back on the menu.” [laughs]

[00:23:12] Lucas: Well, yes, it became such a high percentage of our product mix that it was almost undeniable the fact that it need to go on our menu. Really, going through it and refreshing your menu and updating your menu, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
I mean, there are certainly lots of concepts that have done very well without doing anything to their menu and maybe making one update every couple of years, but for us, I think that the fact that we have so many of these great fruits and veggies and proteins to play with, it lends ourselves to making some really cool, fun, and craveable [sic] items to put on the menu.

[00:23:54] Adam: Right. Yes, that’s really interesting. So, it worked. You created interest with that one for sure.

[00:24:00] Lucas: Yes, almost too much, but that’s a good thing. So, now, it’s in our menu and it’s not coming off. So, you got to try that one out the next time you’re in.

[00:24:09] Adam: Yes, I think I will. Let’s talk about variety because I am, as I said, I almost always get the Doc Holliday. Every now and then, I’ll switch, the Edgar Allen Poe is a good backup for me. But talk about variety when you guys are thinking about creating a new dish, creating interest, and what the arrangement is.
I know you wear a lot of hats as the head lettuce juggler. I’m assuming there’s a lot of interplay there and if you could talk to me about how the team works about coming up with these ideas and figuring out ingredients for new interesting dishes.

[00:24:43] Lucas: Yes, we have a culinary committee that’s comprised of some people here at the home office as well as some in-restaurant folks from here in Colorado. We talk a lot about what guests are talking about at the restaurant, what they’re enjoying, what we’re seeing from an ingredient standpoint is really moving. That’s where that ideation process starts in terms of offering variety.
We also don’t want to offer something that’s too similar to something we already have on the menu. That’s something we are always very conscious of. Having a salad that is one ingredient away from the Ty Cobb or one ingredient away from our Dionysos Salad is something that guests suggest all the time and one of the things that we try to stay away from in terms of putting in an additional menu item on the menu. We don’t want anything to be too similar because then it would just cannibalize from the other menu item and so–

[00:25:40] Adam: I think it would cause confusion for consumers especially your scale, new consumers that walk in and they go, “What’s the difference?” That’s a problem you don’t want.

[00:25:49] Lucas: True and you also don’t want to have too many items on your menu. We really just went through a process of updating our menu and taking some items off that really weren’t moving and we were prepping a lot of these items from scratch and they were– some of them were three-quarters and we’re getting thrown away at the end of every shift because we just couldn’t move enough based on the pack size that we were getting into the restaurant.
So, going through and doing ingredient audits and waste audits to make sure that what we’re putting out there is the freshest and we’re not wasting any of it is also an important piece of that menu-building puzzle that we need to factor in. That’s one of those where it helps to get everybody in the room to talk about that kind of stuff so we get all those angles.

[00:26:38] Adam: And you get ops people talking about waste right up front.

[00:26:41] Lucas: Exactly.

[00:26:42] Adam: Is that a big concern? Is that a commitment from you guys to minimize waste? I mean, I know for all restaurants we want to minimize waste, but specifically, I don’t know why I would assume your concept, but being in Boulder and being in salad concept.

[00:26:59] Lucas: We’re very focused on it. I mean it’s something that we talk about with our operators constantly, like, “What’s really sitting? What’s not moving?” and then trying to figure out ways to either one; use that waste stream in a different way or just quell it all together and knock it off the menu, which is part of that every–
We’re now on a schedule of every almost six to eight months where we’re going to go through and do these waste and ingredient audits to make sure that everything that we have on the menu is really what our guest want because our guests are voting with their dollars and they’re voting with their choices in the restaurant and saying, “Hey, I want this. I don’t want this,” and we can look at that data and say, “All right. Well, we sold 20,000 scoops of shrimp and only five thousand scoops of our smoked salmon and we’re wasting all kinds of our smoked salmon.” So, we pull that off the menu and see what happens with that.

[00:27:57] Adam: Right and do you do– in that case, would you do a local test in a single restaurant or just a single area first or do you go pretty much system-wide and see what happens?

[00:28:06] Lucas: Yes, we would do a couple of restaurants to start off with and see what the consumer sentiment, the consumer reaction is and then if it’s pretty minimal, then we’ll move to system-wide.

[00:28:18] Adam: That’s great. I have a note here that says paradox of choice. I’ve watched people come into your concept and other concepts where you have the opportunity to build it yourself and sort of freeze and say, “I don’t know. There’s 17 things I don’t– what lettuce do I start with? What green do I start with?”
Is that something that you deal with as you’re trying to create menu items? You mentioned that you look and try to pull items off. Is that to simplify the consumer decision or really just simplify things operationally and waste less?

[00:28:51] Lucas: Yes. No, that’s a really good point. We actually had a culinary committee where we were all paralyzed by the paradox of choice in terms of a bunch of menu items or a bunch of salads that we wanted to put on the menu. We couldn’t make a unifying decision on what we wanted, which ones we wanted to put on the menu.
Yes, you almost sort of paralyze yourself by saying, “We have so many choices but let’s try to narrow it down to–,” we wanted a, I’ll say, pasta-based salad. So, that is one vertical like, “All right, let’s look at what our options are from a pasta-based salad.”
We want a salad that is spiced forward or spicy forward. So, let’s pull all the noise away from the other directions and focus on spice forward. We want to focus more on that, really centralizes and highlights our steak and what are those salad options and flavor profiles.
So, that was out of that that exercise in our culinary committee where we all were paralyzed looking at 14 different salad options and not being able to come to consensus on anything, and then we just decided to we’re going to funnel the ideas into little buckets and then that way, we’re able to really hone in on what that decision would be.

[00:30:06] Adam: Yes. So, you start with a concept really and then you say, “Okay, how can we make it the most spice forward or really pay off the pasta?”

[00:30:13] Lucas: Right.

[00:30:14] Adam: That’s great. What do you think– this is an open-ended question, but we’ve seen a lot of trends and ingredients. I was just at a show last week where there were 50 products that had turmeric in it, which is great, it’s a great spice but I was–

Transcriptions by Go Transcript.

Listen to the Episode.

Author: Adam Pierno

Adam Pierno has a one-of-a-kind perspective on restaurant and CPGs. He investigates the connections between strategy, media, digital and business goals employing social media listening, analysis and traditional consumer research to find meaningful insights for brands thinking about their futures.