Founded in 2008, The Big Salad offers countless customizable salad combinations as well as build-your-own sandwich, soup and wrap options. With locations throughout Michigan, the chain now plans to open 100 stores in metro areas across the country within the next 10 years. Growth will occur largely through its franchise model, in place since 2012.
The Big Salad founder and CEO John Bornoty’s current passion involves teaming up with universities, including Madonna University in Livonia, Mich., to introduce a new, reality-based learning project for business majors. Seal the Deal offers students a semester-long project where teams compete to create, design, test and market a new menu item for The Big Salad. The course stems from a successful pilot program at Grosse Pointe North High School.
FE&S: How did the business classes come about?
JB: Five years ago, we came up with the concept because I remember being in business school classes and hating just sitting at a desk with a book while a teacher talks. We found that while many high schools now offer business classes, they still fall short in this way. We thought about how we could work with business classes to make them more real. My wife is a teacher and that’s how she prefers to run her classrooms. That is when the idea of reality-based learning started; our first class was at Grosse Pointe North High School and it was very successful. We have continued to work with that school.
FE&S: How does the program work?
JB: We typically work with a group of about 30 kids, along with the teacher to integrate the lessons into the curriculum. We give the students a list of all the ingredients we have in the restaurants and the students split into groups to create a new menu item, complete with a marketing campaign. Each group then has one day to sell the product in the designated The Big Salad location. The group that sells the most, wins.
During the development process, each group works with our executives and franchisee to help test out their menu item in kitchens before committing to their final creation. While developing their product, we ask each group: Why would someone want to buy this menu item? Is it something they want or something they need? We try to encourage the students to sell customers something they want and tell them why they need it. We also set the price the same for each menu item — and we set it low — so that’s not a factor in the success of their sales. Some students have even gone into our restaurants while working on their campaign and talked to customers for market research. Many of the students use social media to do promotions, but they will also do some in-store promotions and even dress up and offer samples outside the stores as well.
FE&S: Why did you decide to continue to offer a reality-based learning program?
JB: We’re not doing this to make money — we award the winning team that sold the most menu items with a giant trophy and place their new menu item on our menu. We also provide a donation to the marketing class for technology and school supplies. The kids love it, and we’re finding many schools love it, too, because it’s an opportunity to get students to learn beyond just books. It’s been pretty successful at universities too, and we’re looking in the Houston area next. We have even seen some students change their major because they didn’t realize how much they enjoyed the sales or advertising aspect of menu and product development.
FE&S: Have any of the student creations made it to the permanent menu?
JB: We do a menu update about once a year and have had to make a few tweaks from a costing standpoint, but yes, we have seen some of the menu items make their way onto the menu in different variations. For us, it provides great research to see what the students come up with because this is obviously what they are looking for in a product.
FE&S: Do you have plans to expand the program?
JB: Our Seal the Deal program has been a tremendous success in terms of teaching high school students real-life business lessons, inspiring their creativity and giving back to the local community. As we continue to expand The Big Salad franchise into new territories, we are excited to introduce Seal the Deal to those communities as well. In addition to Grosse Pointe High School and Madonna University, we have also worked with Novi High School and are looking at schools in the Houston area where we are growing. The challenge is getting the school to be interested in something like this that really goes out of the box of a traditional curriculum.
FE&S: How have you personally enjoyed the Seal the Deal program?
JB: I love it. It’s been a blast working with the students. I also have that entrepreneurial drive so it’s great to help kids with the same passion. I love any way that you can see someone’s eyes light up when they’re inspired and help others create something from very little.
Sale day is so much fun because you see how much fun they have when they realize someone will pay for something they created. I love instilling that entrepreneurial drive in others and showing younger people that they can truly do anything they want if they have enough drive and passion.
FE&S: The Big Salad has always focused on technology. How is technology an important part of menu development?
JB: We opened in September 2008 — talk about bad timing, right? Because my background wasn’t in restaurants, we didn’t have any bad habits and were able to adjust quickly. I came from a tech background, so we instituted a lot of technology in our restaurants right away. It’s amazing to remember how far behind the restaurant industry was — and still is, in some cases — with technology. Scheduling was always done on paper. Even inventory was done with a clipboard and spreadsheet. Point-of-sale systems didn’t provide nearly the type of data it does now.
Since we were early [adapters in technology] we had to do a lot of the development ourselves and come up with our own systems. We developed our own inventory and scheduling system right from the start. We also use our integrated technology systems to monitor brand quality and streamline how new products are rolled out. We use those systems to run market research reports, test new items and track sales, just like our students learn in their Seal the Deal classes.