Transcript of Food & Restaurant Podcast – What is ‘Better For You?’ with Leah McGrath of Ingles Markets

Transcript of Food & Restaurant Podcast – What is ‘Better For You?’ with Leah McGrath of Ingles Markets. Listen to the episode here.

[00:00:11] Adam Pierno: All right, welcome back to another episode of Food and Restaurant Marketing, the podcast. We are really excited. This will be our conclusion to season 2 and it’s been a very fun season so far but I have a feeling we may have saved the best for last. We have a fantastic guest who is a little different than the other folks that you’ve heard from. Today we have, joining us from Ingles Markets is Leah McGrath who is a registered dietitian. Knows a lot about nutrition, knows a lot about food, ingredients and some of the science behind what we eat and what we add to our meals, and what we’re consuming and also what we’re selling. So, welcome Leah.

[00:00:55] Leah McGrath: Thank you, Adam. Nice to be here.

[00:01:00] Adam: I’m really glad that we did this. We’ve been trying to set this one up for a while and I appreciate you hanging in there while we scheduled and re-scheduled that a few times.

[00:01:07] Leah: Yes, you know I wasn’t trying to play hard to get Adam, I promise. [laughs] I think we were both trying to play hard to get, with busy schedules and timings and everything, but it’s great to be here and be able to talk to you and your guests.

[00:01:24] Adam: Yes I know. Thank you, I’m really glad. Do you want to give the people a little bit of a background on where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing?

[00:01:31] Leah: Sure. I have been a registered dietitian for over 20 years. I’ve been a retail or supermarket dietitian for the majority of that for 17 years, but my background as a registered dietitian has also included work in public health, and I was a dietitian in the army believe it or not. I was an officer and dietitian in the army. That has been the past 20 some years but my life before that, I was involved in marketing as a head hunter and even before that, I worked in the restaurant space, Adam. I was a general manager, banquet manager, catering manager, so I really credit the restaurant world for first sparking my love for finding out more about food and learning more about food and even nutrition.

[00:02:32] Adam: Wow, that’s a really interesting background. So, you’ve seen it all. You’ve seen food from all sides and you’ve done the regiment, the discipline of the army and the craziness of the marketing side as well.

[00:02:43] Leah: Exactly, and being a dietitian is– a lot of people don’t know what the difference is between a registered dietitian and a nutritionist. Registered dietitians have to complete at least a four-year college education. We have to go through about 1200 hours of an internship. We have to pass a nationally administered board exam and we have to keep up continuing education credit every year. It is a pretty rigorous type of study. It’s very competitive to get into an internship and there’s a lot of science and chemistry behind becoming a registered dietitian.

[00:03:23] Adam: Yes. Well, that’s very interesting. Tell me a little bit before we get into our conversation today. As a dietitian working with a brand, what does that entail on a day to day basis?

[00:03:36] Leah: Well, my days are pretty atypical. Today, for example, I was down recording a TV segment and talking about ways that you can use all of the watermelon. My days vary between doing presentations, doing TV, hosting a radio program for our retailer, doing supermarket tours. I do a lot of writing for regional publications, but probably the biggest chunk of my day right now which has also been the case for about the past five to six years, is running social media for the retailer and for my own pages as well. Social media takes up a big chunk of my time right now.

[00:04:22] Adam: Right, I think it takes up a lot of everybody’s time but I do appreciate you being here and let’s get into the conversation today. We’ll be talking today about what does the phrase “Better for you” really mean? What is better for you? We hear it as a claim from CPG manufacturers, restaurants and people thinking about it as they shop, but I thought who better to help me answer that question than a registered dietitian that’s been doing this for a long time. Give me your overview on “better for you” as a claim and what it’s intended to mean.

[00:05:01] Leah: Well, I’m glad you said claim versus what it’s intended to mean. I think that it gets a little murky sometimes because what better for you might be for you, might be very different for somebody who might have diabetes or who might have celiac disease. It’s sort of a very general term. I think there are probably things that most health professionals and dietitians could agree upon that could fall under that “Better for you” might be more fruits and vegetables, or a product having more servings of fruits and vegetables. Less sodium.
Perhaps low in saturated fat, lower sugar amounts, minimally processed or could be higher in fiber. I think that there might be a few ideas that most people would agree on as being better for you, but then we start to get into the gray areas that might depend on a person’s dietary needs, their lifestyle, their food allergies, their food preferences so it gets a little complicated, it gets a little sticky.

[00:06:29] Adam: It happens very quickly, I think. When we start to think about– you mentioned celiacs or food allergies, so I know that if I want to have some good clean protein I can use peanuts or nuts, but if I have a nut allergy that’s obviously not better for me. That’s going to cause all kinds of problems. That’s where the gray area comes in. Even beyond the improved nutrition, I like the idea that people are trying to create products that offer improved nutrition and I think they have the right ideas at heart. But, when they say, “Better for you” is it always better for you? Or is it better than the competitor on the shelf that has 11 grams of sugar and they’re only adding 10 grams?

[00:07:21] Leah: Right, I think we start to get into the whole labeling conundrum and also sort of following a fad. You mentioned lean protein, so right now protein is exceptionally hot thanks to things like the Paleo diet and CrossFit. I see that becoming the “Better for you” perception, is all around protein right now. That’s one of the biggest areas where I think, they think brands are trying to shine the spotlight on products that have higher amounts of protein as being better for you and may not always be the case. But, I think right now protein is very hot.
I think even more so. I mean, we’ve seen other trends through the years. We’ve seen things like fiber, we’ve seen things like anti-oxidants but I think right now, higher protein amounts and lower sugar amounts; those are the two things that brands are trying to seek that competitive edge over their next door neighbor on the shelf and say, “Hey, we look better because we have more protein” or “We look better. We’re better for you because we have less sugar.”

[00:08:41] Adam: Right. Yes, it’s interesting. Last month we went to The Fancy Food Show in New York and in the past, I think it was driven new innovation in that space and the CPG space was driven a lot by flavor in the past. But now it seems nutrition and quality of nutrients is really forward in all the innovation. Everybody has, besides popcorn, everybody has something that’s really adding protein or a new way to sweeten without sugar and that seems to be really driving innovation.

[00:09:17] Leah: Yes. I think I’ve seen the same at Expo East, Expo West. I’m seeing reports on those and I would say you’re right on target with that.

[00:09:30] Adam: Earlier this season we interviewed Lucas Clark from MAD Greens, which if you’re not familiar with MAD Greens, it’s a chain of salad restaurants and they have these crazy customizable salads and I happen to be a super fan of the brand. He posited that all trends right now are driven by nutrition and trying to find this edge of “Better for you” so when he was saying they look for ingredients, that’s what they’re trying to do. It’s not just flavor, but it has to obviously taste good. He said they were looking in their culinary team for ways to get more protein in or get more fiber and really amp up the quality of the nutrition.

[00:10:14] Leah: Yes, I think that’s really exciting. As a dietitian, any time you can promote eating vegetables in a salad, I mean, we’re all for that. The top of our list is trying to get people to eat more vegetables and fruits and make those a bigger part of your plate or your bowl. That’s definitely a big selling point for me, but yes. It’s interesting Adam, you haven’t said the word superfood. Honestly, I’m glad you haven’t because I think that, it seemed like for a while every year we would have one superfood that everybody catered to. Whether it was pomegranate or kale, or something like that, but now I think you’re right, I think-

[00:11:08] Adam: Acai.

[00:11:09] Leah: Acai, right. Chia seeds. Now I think we’re seeing maybe a broader look, a broader scope at just making offerings in general. Better for you with more fruits, more vegetables, more protein, less sugar. Maybe not focusing so much on just one food.

[00:11:34] Adam: Leah, you triggered a great question. Do you believe that that is because we’re getting smarter about nutrition as a culture and we understand there’s no magic bullet or do you think the marketing has just worn off of the term superfood, and people are starting to spam it in their email?

[00:11:51] Leah: Yes. I don’t know. I hope the latter, that people are getting tired of that term. Are we getting smarter? I think we certainly have access to a lot more information. I don’t know if that always correlates with getting smarter or just getting bombarded with more information. I think the trends and the fads are flipping much more quickly now than they used to. It feels like when the Atkins diet was the big fad, that stuck around for quite some time, but I feel like now the food fads and food trends just change up. Their cycle is much shorter.

[00:12:38] Adam: That’s really interesting too. I’m glad you brought that up. In the restaurant space we see menus can shift quickly with LTOs and probably not as quickly as internal brand people would like them to, but pretty quickly they can add some things. If chia seeds become a trend, they can add a chia seed salad or an additive to a milkshake or something. But in the CPG world, when you’re talking about shelf space and grocery distribution, how fast do you see that shifting when an ingredient or an additive becomes popular? How long does it take to get to the market and how long does it stay on the shelf before it starts to disappear?

[00:13:20] Leah: Yes. I think going to events like the Fancy Food Show, Expo East, Expo West will give you an inkling of the coming fads and trends in food. Usually what we start seeing presented to buyers might be a little ahead of those shows. It’s kind of like a little trickle, right? At first it’s a little trickle and then the shows come and you see, for example, popcorn, you mentioned popcorn earlier. I remember one year it was like, all of a sudden we’re getting more people trying to introduce popcorn to us and there were like all different flavors and things like that. Then when you go to Expo East or Expo West, there are tons of popcorns there. Then you’re starting-

[00:14:11] Adam: Yes, it’s amazing.

[00:14:12] Leah: Yes. Then you’re just getting this flood of presentations for people to try and sell you popcorn. I don’t know in terms of time what the cycle is, but it’s still probably a lot faster. Then I think in the US, anyway, we’re such spoiled consumers. Our boredom threshold is so low that we get really bored so quickly and we want to move on to the next food, the next taste, sensation. Now we’re tired of sea salt caramel, we want sriracha. You have to be pretty nimble.

[00:14:56] Adam: Oh, that’s funny. Yes. You’re hitting on all the trends. Sriracha was in everything for a year. It’s still very popular. I just read that Auntie Anne’s has a sriracha pretzel [inaudible 00:15:06]

[00:15:06] Leah: Oh, that sounds good.

[00:15:09] Adam: I’ll be heading over to the mall for that for sure. Not better for you, but tasty as well.

[00:15:14] Leah: Yes. Exactly.

[00:15:15]Adam: I’ll do it. What do you think about Panera last year kind of went all in on the idea of the clean menu and I have my own take on that from a marketing standpoint, the use of the word clean. I would love to hear the perspective of a registered dietitian on the clean menu and what does that mean for “Better for you” claims and what does that mean for consumers?

[00:15:44] Leah: Yes. You’ve touched on one of my least favorite terms. One of my friends works for another retailer in the mid west and we had this discussion about that whole term, clean is like, what’s the opposite of clean? Is it something unclean or dirty?

[00:16:06] Adam: Totally, totally agree.

[00:16:07] Leah: Yes. She was saying, and I agree with this is that, “Why can’t we focus on clear?” Why can’t we focus on– if the brand’s idea is to simplify labeling or make things more understandable, or clearer to the consumer, or clear to the guest at the restaurant? I mean, I think everybody could get behind that, but when you start focusing on clean, I think it sets up this sort of caste system of food that implies that you’re better if you eat these foods because they’re clean.
If you’re eating at a competitor or buying these other options, which are unclean or dirty, you, therefore, are unclean or dirty in some way. Let’s not forget Chipotle because I think that when I see Panera making these sort of clean claims, I think, “Wow, this sort of reminds me of Chipotle in the pre-food safety nightmare days”. A lot of people frankly said on Twitter, “Hey, you got what was coming to you. Karma bit you in the butt on that one.”

[00:17:19] Adam: I totally agree. In fact, if you go back, I believe it might have been the first episode we posted of this podcast. We did a story on Chipotle going all in on food safety. It was in the aftermath of the first outbreak. Our position at that time was, “Hey, that’s the wrong move” because now you’re saying, “We promise this won’t happen again” and when you break that promise we’re seeing what’s happening, right?

[00:17:44] Leah: You’re right. I think it’s a dangerous space to try and put up your marketing flag. I think it’s kind of risky.

[00:17:56] Adam: I agree. It’s like service. I never can promise flawless service because it’s a promise that is guaranteed to be not kept. Clean food, it just takes one social media image of some somebody who finds a toothpick in their food or something that all of a sudden it turns into a snarky meme.

[00:18:16] Leah: Yes. What reminds me, if you’ve ever been traveling across the United States and you see a big sign on a roadside that says, “Clean restrooms here” it’s like, well, that’s what we expect. Right? We expect-

[00:18:33] Adam: I sure hope they’re not filthy, yes.

[00:18:34] Leah: [laughs] We expect our food to be clean. We expect a certain level of food safety and safe food handling. We don’t want you to have to brag about that because that’s an understanding that we have that it’s supposed to be clean anyway.

[00:18:51] Adam: I feel the same way about restaurants. I just read an article about Papa John’s and they have a new CMO, and that’s a brand I like. They want to talk more about food quality. To me, I say, “Food quality?” I take that as table stakes. I assume that the food is quality or you wouldn’t be in business. Reminding me of that, I’m not sure that I’m motivated, but with clean food to me, maybe I’m just hypercritical and hyper-skeptical. It raises more questions for me as a consumer than it answers or makes me want to go there.

[00:19:26] Leah: Yes. I don’t know if I mind quality as much because maybe that implies more of people taking care of where the food’s coming from and where they’re sourcing it from, and how they’re storing it. I don’t know if I mind quality quite as much, but I see where you’re going with that.

[00:19:48] Adam: But you do not care for clean?
[00:19:59] Leah: I don’t care for clean, no.

[00:19:54] Adam: Let’s talk a little bit about your neck of the woods in the grocery isle. I know that there’s a lot of new stuff happening on shelf and we’ve already touched on fancy food and the health innovation. Any other trends that you’re seeing in the grocery that are more “Better for you” claims, but that also as a dietitian that you can get behind and think they’re really making advances?

[00:20:17] Leah: Well, I think there are so many different things happening. Sometimes I just like to go to the store without any shopping list or agenda just to try and pay attention to what I see there. I feel very excited that I’m seeing a lot more innovative packaging when it comes to vegetables and fruits to make them more accessible, grab and go prepped so that people don’t have to spend a lot of time cutting. That’s one really cool trend that I’m really happy to see. The other thing, of course, I see that I’m not as crazy about is non-GMO project labeling on products that have no genetic material whether it’s-

[00:20:59] Adam: Wait, can you repeat that? Your voice just cut out there.

[00:21:01] Leah: Yes, sorry. I’m not as happy about seeing non-GMO project labels on products that don’t have genetic material. When you see a non-GMO project label on a bottle of water, or sea salt, or cat litter. I recognize why companies are putting that pay-for-play label on products but I think it’s going to confuse consumers and then they’re going to just start ignoring it because they know that it has little or no value.

[00:21:42] Adam: Right, I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s when we think about green washing and trying to disguise everything as better for you then the tide is going down and everybody starts ignoring those labels. As a consumer, I think I’m never really sure what’s good for me and when I see GMO, non-GMO I honestly have no idea. Is that bad? Is that good? I don’t know.

[00:22:09] Leah: Yes, Adam. I finally decided I think it’s because of the G that I’ve had people who actually confuse non-GMO with gluten free. Because they don’t know-

[00:22:24] Adam: That’s interesting it’s more just from saturation of media coverage that they just kind of confuse those two ideas.

[00:22:31] Leah: Yes, a lot of people, whether we’re talking about non-GMO project or gluten free, or even organic that they don’t know. They think that those labels automatically also imply health or nutrition when they don’t.

[00:22:51] Adam: That’s dead on. We did some research here for a CPG brand of snack that has the “Better for you” shine on it and we found out that consumers liked that it was organic. They attributed it to some health benefit, but they actually had no idea how to draw a line between the word organic and a health benefit. I don’t think there actually is one. It’s just a cleaner way to grow the food.

[00:23:17] Leah: Right, organic was designed as a way to provide agricultural certification for products. Certain standards when it comes to how crops are grown and with what input. What pesticides, because organic does use pesticides but many people don’t understand that. Then it also has to do with how what animals are fed and access to outdoors. It’s just specific standards. Nowhere, if you read the organic standards does it have anything to do with nutrition or even food safety because, of course, we have recalls of organic products several times a year so it obviously is not a guarantee of food safety either.

[00:24:10] Adam: No, I totally hear you. Then, when we think about the trends- you mentioned super food then we talked a little bit about clean, gluten free, non-GMO, organic, all these trends. It’s interesting to see how the trends make it to market and then how they get diluted. You see popcorn came back and then now there’s 60 brands and each one of them has 10 skews with different flavors. It’s so saturated that it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. Not that that is a nutrition play but I see that also with flavor. At Fancy Food again I saw a lot of seaweed products and I wonder how far will that go before that’s just a totally watered down trend where it just becomes a flavor that’s added to other things.

[00:24:59] Leah: Right. The tide comes in and then it starts to go out again as people just sort of go, “You know, I’m tired of that flavor,” like the example I gave earlier the sea salt caramel or the sriracha and they’re ready for something new. They’re ready for the dill pickle popcorn, or some other kind of flavor that will intrigue their taste buds.

[00:25:34] Adam: Yes, they’re looking for the next one. I do like the dill pickle actually, that’s a good flavor. I know we talked super food, we talked clean, what about the phrase “Free from”? I’ve been seeing it almost as a substitute for “Better for you” and it’s used a lot as “Free from lifestyle” kind of like you referenced CrossFit at the top of this talk. “Free from” has become a banner people can get on.

[00:25:59] Leah: Yes, my goodness I have a whole slide and a presentation I’m working on now about “Free from” claims because, remember fat-free, Adam? Fat-free has gone by the way side but with sugar-free, or no sugar added. We’ve got GMO-free, we’ve got non-GMO, or antibiotic-free, hormone-free, free range, cage-free. I think that whole “Free from” has taken on a big personality. There is just so much in that space and I think again, we have a situation where consumers are confused about what the alternative is. Cage-free eggs for example. I will admit I only learned this more recently, cage-free eggs being a really big thing or the word cage-free. I did not realize that our broiler chickens, the ones we eat, are never raised in cages anyway. Did you know that they’re-

[00:27:25] Adam: No, and I have also seen hormone-free chicken or anti-steroid chicken and then foster farms have said legally, you’re not allowed to have that anyway so I don’t know what produce was talking about. It’s interesting how they try to make those claims.

[00:27:39] Leah: Yes, they do it and they will admit that they do it for marketing reasons to have a competitive advantage. It’s kind of like watching a domino when one brand label does that, that everybody has to get in line to do the same thing because nobody wants to be the odd man out. If the chicken brand puts on their label, “Antibiotic-free,” then that’s not technically correct. They can say, “No antibiotics administered” then every other brand’s going to go, “Well, we’re gonna do it too now because everybody’s going to be thinking that we’re the ones who have antibiotics even if we don’t.”

[00:28:20] Adam: Yes, they’re all updating their packaging the next day as soon as they hear that claim from their competitor, that’s for sure. It’s a crazy world but I think it’s making it hard for consumers to keep pace because I look at “Free from” and to me it seems like it will stay fringe. It hasn’t really caught on mainstream yet. I haven’t seen it as something that restaurant brands definitely not, but I haven’t seen it in grocery either really take hold as there’s no “Free from” section or there’s no “Free from” promotion but the food brands that like it or that use it are really, really into it.

[00:29:01] Leah: I think the only place that we’ve really seen sections in the store and labeling has really been gluten free universally. That really kind of got adopted and then it has FDA backing now so that serve a separate category though.

[00:29:21] Adam: Yes and there’s actually traceable reasons why it’s important. I have noticed though in the groceries we’re in Scottsdale, Arizona, and I’ve noticed that our stores out here have added a snack area to the produce section. In the produce section there will be one or two isles set up that have the “Better for you” snacks and some of the products I would consider “Free from” or cleaner. Are you guys also doing that?

[00:29:52] Leah: We have a lot of our newer stores have a bulk food section so that’s real popular. In the produce section, we’ve always had things like apple chips and different kinds of nut and fruit bars. Those have always been very popular in that area. But as to a separate section within produce, no, I don’t think we have anything that I would describe that way.

[00:30:24] Adam: Those things have always been part of the produce like apple chips and fruit leather. Some of those products that are just little bit better for you. Okay, well I think we have run the gamut here of topics. I really appreciate you making time to chat with us today.

[00:30:42] Leah: It’s been a pleasure, Adam. Thank you.

[00:30:47] Adam: Leah, is there anything that you have going on that you want to talk about?

[00:30:50] Leah: Well, if people want to find me, they can find me on Twitter. I’m @InglesDietitian on Twitter and I am on Facebook as Leah McGrath Dietitian, on Facebook as well. I am happy to interact with people on social media. I think one of the things that I’m probably most proud of right now that we’re doing is we work a lot with local farmers and vendors and we have monthly events in our stores to highlight locally grown and produced products. That is probably my most fun right now.

[00:31:31] Adam: I love that. Actually, Twitter is how you and I met, so I can vouch for the fact that if you reach out to Leah she will respond pretty quickly. Also, don’t forget Leah also has a radio show that she’s been doing for over 10 years. 12 years is it?

[00:31:48] Leah: About that, I think, yes.

[00:31:50] Adam: You can download that. I’ll include a link to the podcast. Every episode is released as a podcast just like this one. It’s called the Ingles Information Aisle. I will add a link to the show notes here so that people who enjoyed this talk can hear some more.

[00:32:06] Leah: Great.

[00:32:09] Adam: Alright. Well, thank you very much, Leah. I really appreciate your time and as always to our listeners, we appreciate all the feedback that we get. You can email us Adam@foodandrestaurantmarketing or on Twitter FandRM. We love to hear feedback especially when it’s positive. You can keep the negative stuff.

[00:32:26] Leah: [laughs]
[00:32:28] Adam: I’m just kidding, I’ll take that too. [laughs]
[00:32:29] Leah: Thanks, Adam.
[00:32:30] Adam: Alright, well, thanks again, Leah. I appreciate it.

Listen to the episode here.

Transcript of Food & Restaurant Marketing Podcast – Episode: Amazing Culture with Kaffee Hopkins of Sterling Hospitality

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

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–

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