New prototype moves nearly all food prep and production to the front of the house for this healthy eating fast-casual chain.

Coolgreens-1Coolgreens’ new prototype includes a walk-in cooler that’s completely on display, allowing the company to showcase the freshness of its food.Visit a Coolgreens location and you may see more than team members making salads and wraps, or customers enjoying their meals. You may also find a yoga or spinning class, a lecture on nutrition or a how-to session on cleanses.

That's because the chain, with headquarters in Oklahoma City, isn't motivated by profit alone. While the bottom line remains important, Coolgreens' mission of inspiring healthy communities also serves as a driving force in the chain's evolution, says CEO Robert Lee.

Hosting exercise classes, lectures and even book clubs helps Coolgreens' communities stay healthy while "further connecting us to the community and introducing people to who we are and the food we provide," Lee says.

The food, of course, plays a big role in Coolgreens' commitment to healthy communities. As the chain's name implies, Coolgreens offers a veggie-heavy menu, featuring salads, wraps, sandwiches, flatbreads and quinoa bowls, among other offerings.

Coolgreens handles nearly all prep work for these items in-house. Instead of getting plastic bags full of cleaned and ready-to-eat lettuce or sliced carrots and bell peppers, for instance, the chain receives these vegetables whole and does the cleaning and cutting in its own prep area.

"One way we [inspire healthy communities] is that fresh food naturally tastes better," Lee says. "We're providing an excellent experience and great-tasting food."

Over the past few years, though, Lee has noticed more and more chains touting that they, too, do all the slicing, dicing, cutting and chopping in their own kitchens. He also noticed that customers can't see this for themselves. The work takes place in the back of the house, out of sight of the guests.

This led directly to the creation of a new Coolgreens prototype, the chain's seventh overall store. Staff at this Norman, Okla., location execute nearly all prep work in the front of the house, in full view of the customers. Because the back of the house now handles only a few functions, it now measures only 200 square feet.

All Up Front

Coolgreens-4The restaurant’s light green and blue color palette help create a relaxing, yet energetic, space. The veining on its polymer chairs resemble lettuce leaves under a microscope, says CEO Robert Lee.Coolgreens' commitment to radical transparency is even more radical than it sounds. Not only does the company execute prep up front, it also provides guests a full view of the walk-in cooler.

Customers see the cooler soon after they enter the store. They walk in, turn to the right and find three reach-in style glass doors that give them a full view of the walk-in. Two of these doors remain locked; behind them, Coolgreens-branded wooden cartons filled with fresh produce line the shelves.

Behind the unlocked third door, customers can access such grab-and-go items as yogurt parfaits and bottled juices. Shelving in the grab-and-go unit has a plastic cover (also branded Coolgreens) that prevents guests from reaching into the walk-in shelving through the back and side.

The number of reach-in doors isn't limited to three, Lee notes. Larger restaurants may have four doors, any of which can be made accessible to guests. "We can lock all the doors or any combination based on the location and how prevalent to-go items are," he says.

After the walk-in, guests next see the restaurant's kitchen/production area. Here, they can order signature items such as the Southwest Salad (mixed greens and arugula, black beans, poblano peppers, avocado, corn, tortilla chips, Monterey Jack cheese, southwest vinaigrette) or the Barbecue Flatbread (house-made barbecue sauce, chicken, mushrooms, red bell peppers, green onion, artisan cheese blend). Alternatively, guests can follow fast casual's tried-and-true method of walking down a line and choosing among displayed ingredients.

The exact makeup of the chain's kitchen equipment package could change as Coolgreens continues looking for operational efficiencies and gets more time with this design under its belt, says Lee. For the time being, the kitchen will follow this basic flow.

Station Ordering

Coolgreens-3Coolgreens’ prep line, along the back wall in the front of the house, showcases the freshness of the food served on the production line.At the first station on the ordering line, guests can select hot items, such as sandwiches and flatbreads and quinoa bowls. Facing the customer, team members working this station have a refrigerated table that holds such ingredients as cheeses, proteins and veggies in about a dozen cold wells on the top of the unit. The refrigerated space below holds backup ingredients as well as flatbread and bread for sandwiches.

When a staff member needs to toast a menu item, the person turns around to face the back wall, which houses an electric conveyor oven. All menu items produced with this oven have been designed to cook at the same exact time and temperature, making its use practically foolproof.

According to Lee, placing the hot station at the start of the line represents a change for Coolgreens. Previously, the hot station came after the salad stations. If a guest was planning to order a hot item, by the time he or she got to that station "the ordering process had already been started for salad. So we naturally missed 45 seconds to a minute and a half. If you're with a group of people going down the line, your hot food item could have already been started. Moving the hot station is a prompt to start that item before you get too far into the ordering process."

A series of salad tables follows the hot station. Each of these four tables feature cold wells on top and hold backup items below. The first table holds various lettuce mixes. The second and third tables store different toppings, while the fourth displays salad dressings and premium items, such as avocado, bacon, and nuts.

An additional salad table sits along the back wall, near most of the equipment. Staff use this station to make high-demand menu items as well as to-go orders, the production of which could otherwise potentially alienate customers waiting in line, says Lee. "We make it out of the way of everyone so we're not interrupting the customer flow to make an item for somebody that's not present," says Lee.

While this production unit sits on the back wall, the rest of the equipment along that wall is for the prep work relocated from the back of the house. These stations include a series of work tables, tables with undercounter refrigeration, sinks and smallwares, with the exact set of tools at each table corresponding to items in the production station. The table handling lettuce prep, for instance has a salad spinner — manual or electric, depending on store volume — while the table for cutting tomatoes and onions has knives specific to those tasks.

Notably, Coolgreens' staff does not use a food processor or other tabletop equipment to execute the cutting and chopping that takes place on this line. Instead, the team does all this by hand, for several reasons, says Lee.

One is financial: Powered prep equipment, such as a food processor, has a much bigger price tag than knives and cutting boards. These units also require maintenance, and the chain will eventually need to replace these items, giving the equipment a higher lifecycle cost than the manual counterparts. In addition, training staffers to work this equipment increases the operation's complexity, while Coolgreens wants to keep its processes simple.

Quality also plays a critical role. Machines "allow more product to get run through, but that doesn't necessarily keep the quality up," Lee adds. "Hand cutting keeps the quality there and it's not so labor-intensive that it's a major cost to us."

Stay Back

While all vegetable prep takes place in front, one step remains in the back of the house. Staff prepare raw proteins, such as chicken and tuna, in back, using a sink and work table. This station, along with warewashing and chemical storage, makes up the entire back of the house.

According to Lee, the chain kept protein prep separate out of food safety concerns. Though Coolgreens holds raw chicken in the same walk-in cooler as produce, it resides in a completely separate section in accordance with HACCP guidelines. When the time comes, the chicken moves to the back for prep, then transfers to the front of the house where it cooks in the conveyor oven, then staff cut it up and place it on the production line.

As a rule, the chain preps these ingredients in small batches, enough for only one shift or one full day and never more, Lee says.

"We know what holds best and what sells at different times of the year. Mangos aren't going to sell the same year-round as apples or pears will. You can apply that to 50 or 60 items across the SKU," Lee says.

This prep work for both produce and proteins takes place in two shifts. The first is in the morning before the restaurant opens, the second in the afternoon, between lunch and dinner service. In-shift prep occurs as necessary.

Energetic Ambiance

While the display walk-in and prep make up a big part of the new Coolgreens' customer experience, the dining area also features a modified design. These changes, however, aren't major and the core appearance remains the same, Lee says.

"It needs to have a great ambiance and energetic feel, and not be so in your face that it's crazy busy," Lee says. "We don't want too many contrasting colors and we don't want it to look too fast-foody, where there are advertisements everywhere."

Light blue and green serve as the restaurant's core colors and they appear on the full- and half-height walls. Wall decor includes a few framed sketches showing salads and brand messages, along with the Coolgreens logo painted on an exposed brick wall.

The restaurant's furnishings include white polymer chairs with a veined pattern resembling lettuce under a microscope. Additional bar-height seating goes with a stainless-steel bar-height shelf and stainless stools. The flooring in this prototype store features a textured ceramic tile, though future locations will convey a similar aesthetic using vinyl products, which are only recently available and are more durable, Lee says.

In fact, all these specified items, Lee notes, were chosen for their durability and franchisee appeal. "Operationally speaking, the items need to be durable, they need to be easy to clean and they need to be cost effective for franchisees. It's easy for franchisors to spec out grossly elevated equipment and furnishing packages knowing the cost isn't falling on them."

Franchising Future

Next on the chain's to do list? Franchising. In addition to developing this new prototype, the company spent much of the last several months getting ready to work with and support franchisees.

To make opening easier for its partners, for example, the company reviewed and enhanced its operational manuals. The modular new design allows Coolgreens stores to open in spaces with different sizes and shapes. In addition, design specifications include A/B options whenever possible, giving franchisees more control of their costs and allowing them to choose the finish or furnishing that best fits the location and neighborhood.

The company, says Lee, plans to grow in concentric circles from its home base of Oklahoma City. The chain is negotiating franchise deals in cities including Dallas and Houston. It's also in conversations with potential partners about openings further out, depending on the franchisee's qualifications and the chain's ability to support them.

While the company would obviously welcome operators with previous restaurant experience, that's not a requirement, Lee says. Such franchisees would simply need to join with an experienced operating partner. In fact, Coolgreens would help the franchisee identify such a partner.

What's non-negotiable, though, is a commitment to Coolgreens' mission of inspiring healthy communities, says Lee. Potential partners that want only to make money and not positively impact the communities they serve are not the right fit for the chain.

"They need to have passion for the industry and passion for being part of the community and healthy lifestyles," Lee says. "If you don't have that passion, if you don't have that dedication, it's going to be a non-starter for us."

Cool Greens at a Glance

  • Key Players: Robert Lee, CEO; Clay Carson, vice president of franchise development; Angelo Cipollone, director of training
  • Interior Design/Kitchen Design Consultant: Carl Lingle, Lingle Design Group, Lena, Ill.

Facts of Note

  • Chain Headquarters: Oklahoma City
  • Year Founded: 2009
  • Signature Menu Items: Southwest Spicy Flatbread, Turkey Pesto Sandwich, Ahi Tuna Steak Sandwich, Harvest Wrap, Plaza Skinny Salad
  • Number of Units: 7
  • Unit Size: 1,800-2,400 square feet (80 percent front of the house, 20 percent back of the house)
  • Seats per unit: 40-65
  • Location Type: Inline and end-cap layouts available, with A/B spec based on floorplan and A/B furnishings, fixtures and equipment
  • Average Sales: $803,732
  • Check Average: $15.90
  • Equipment Package Cost: $65,000 - $95,000