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Tropical Smoothie Cafe Encourages Engagement with New Design

With a fresh take on the tropics, Tropical Smoothie Cafe banishes loud-and-proud kitschy and upgrades to subdued beach house vibe.

Tropical-Smoothie-3The smoothie bar allows customers to watch their drinks being made, while allowing guest-to-employee and guest-to-guest interaction.
Sometimes, a restaurant’s design can be a little too on the nose. Prior to Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s recent redesign, that could have been a fair description of this 515-unit fast-casual chain, which offers smoothies, wraps, sandwiches, salads and more.

The concept’s old design hit the tropical theme hard, with bright oranges and purples, tiki hut–inspired touches and even intentionally fake-looking fake palm trees. Though that design long served the Atlanta-based chain well, by 2014 the time had come for a change.

“We just didn’t think that was the look we wanted to go into the new millennium with,” says chief development officer Charles Watson. “As our consumer evolved, we did not feel the Hawaiian tropical look of our brand was going to work for us for the next 10 or 15 years, so we knew it was time to update.”

Knowing what you don’t want is one thing. Knowing what you do is another. Ultimately Tropical Smoothie Cafe chose a design featuring a warm and inviting space that appeals to millennial customers and encourages community and interaction among all the people in the restaurant, guests and staffers alike.

Beach House, not Beach Party

Tropical-Smoothie-1The chain’s blend station includes a table with a built-in, insulated bin for ice, along with four low-volume blenders.The new Tropical Smoothie Cafe prototype goes by the name “the Beach House.” Rolled out at the end of 2014 and used for every opening since, it features a more subtle design than its predecessor. Instead of using bright oranges and purples along with kitschy design elements, the Beach House design features more subdued colors, like tans and aquas along with weathered finishes, all livened up with splashes of brighter color.

Entering the store, one of the first elements people encounter is the new smoothie bar. Clad in white subway tile with a light hardwood top, the L-shaped bar seats 8 to 10 guests. It overlooks the smoothie production area, which, along with the food production line, now sits in the front of the house instead of its previous location in the back.

Moving food production to the front and placing a bar alongside it allows customers to see the quality and freshness of the ingredients going into their dishes. Just as important, it encourages conversations among guests and employees, an attribute particularly sought by the 18-to-34-year-old demographic that makes up a majority of Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s customers, says Watson.

“When you go to an alcohol bar, people are very used to sitting next to one another. One of the big questions we had was whether people would sit and eat food and drink at a smoothie bar. The answer is a resounding yes. Just the shape of the bar really encourages people. It’s the community feel of sitting next to someone you don’t know,” says Watson.

This isn’t the only spot where design encourages diners to come together. It’s not uncommon for more than one group to sit at the bar-height community table in the center of the restaurant, for example. Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s stores also now feature a large bench set that runs the length of one wall matched with several two-tops that allow for flexible seating arrangements. The base of the bench features multiple outlets, allowing diners to charge devices while enjoying their orders.

Tropical-Smoothie-4Tropical Smoothie Cafe has moved away from the bright oranges and purples of its previous design to a more subtle look, dubbed “the Beach House.”In addition to encouraging community, these design elements have finishes that nail the beach house theme. The bench, for instance, has a weathered wood appearance, as does the restaurant’s laminate flooring. At the same time, 1-foot-by-4-foot pine planks with a weathered appearance adorn two feature walls — one with food photography and another with an image of a dock on a tropical beach.

To encourage customers to fully experience this design, Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s point-of-sale system resides about halfway into the store. The chain hasn’t set up any specific queuing areas, instead letting customers organize themselves, bracketed only by the counter and a display of baskets holding chips and fruit, dubbed “the Marketplace.”

This lack of clear way-finding encourages customer interaction. It also, says Watson, provides a hangout area for the 53 percent of customers who order their food and drink to go.

Front and Center

Tropical-Smoothie-2Tropical Smoothie’s long bench allows for more flexible seating. Extra outlets were added to enable guests to charge their electronic devices.The POS system’s location in the store does more than draw people into the space. It also serves as the literal center point for Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s food production process.

Most smoothie places stick to just smoothies, making the food production line and process relatively simple. With items like wraps and flatbread entrees on its menu, Tropical Smoothie Cafe uses a more intricate kitchen.

The food production process splits into two sections, each starting to one side of the point-of-sale machine. Staff make smoothies to the left of the cashier and entrees to the right. In a further nod to Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s community feel, staff identify customer orders by each guest’s name, not by a number or paging system.

Team members start the smoothie-making process by grabbing a clean blender container from a drainboard to the immediate left of the register. They then move to a 72-inch refrigerated table, which holds fruits and other cold smoothie ingredients in wells. An undercounter refrigerator stores backup ingredients.

Directly opposite is the blender station. This space has a one-compartment sink with a dedicated nozzle for adding water to the smoothies, as well as a built-in insulated bin that holds ice. After adding these ingredients, team members move to one of four blenders that sit on top of the work station.

While Tropical Smoothie Cafe uses a low-noise version of a commercial blender, these units still produce some sound while in use, which can add to the restaurant’s ambiance. “We don’t really want that sound to go away,” says director of design and construction Tom Plauche. “That’s the sound of activity. It really does more to contribute to the atmosphere of the cafe than it does to compete with the conversations.”

After blending, staff members pour smoothies into cups. Staff also wash the blender cups and place them on the draining board where they started. Staff then deliver the smoothies to customers. “It’s a personal delivery. We find we have a lot of repeat customers and the employees and customers get to know each other by name. It reinforces that personal relationship,” Watson says.

Tropical-Smoothie-6The chain’s redesign included the introduction of a new logo.The entree line follows a similar two-sided pattern. The line starts just to the right of the register with two small steamers, stacked one on top of the other. Staff members start by grabbing a starch, usually a wrap or flatbread, from a small rack. They then place a protein from a cold well in an adjacent refrigerated table on the starch and heat the two together in the steamer — a process that takes around 30 seconds. “When customers are looking at the food, the first thing they see is the steam rising. It creates a nice atmosphere,” says Plauche.

After steaming, staff move the starch and protein to the adjacent refrigerated table, where they add to the dish ingredients such as cheese, beans and healthy grains.

Staffers then turn around to a combination microwave/convection oven, which heats entrees once again. “The oven is really more for toasting,” says Watson. “We want that toasted, warm feel, so it’s not in there very long, but it allows for a little browning, a little toasting on the outside of our wrap. On a lot of our wraps, we have a signature spice package that will crystalize.”

After toasting the items, a staff member moves the food to what the chain calls the finish line, where they add ingredients that do not require heating, including certain sauces and salsas.

While the food production at Tropical Smoothie Cafe may be more complicated than at other smoothie places, the chain uses a surprisingly simple back of the house. The standard prep area consists of a single 60- to 72-inch prep table, though higher-volume units may use a second table. Here staffers use smallwares and countertop equipment, such as a tomato slicer, to prep produce.

Much of the prep work, however, is done for the chain. Proteins, for example, come precooked. Lettuce for salads is delivered already shredded, as are the cheeses used in various entree dishes. Eliminating some of the prep work from Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s processes allows the chain to limit its square footage and all of the associated expenses, such as rent and utilities.

“It’s a little bit more expensive to get food in [already prepped], but we think being able to be in a smaller footprint makes up for that,” Watson says.

The back of the house also uses a walk-in cooler/freezer combination, split roughly 50/50 between the two. That ratio is in the process of changing, however. Redesigned stores have a higher volume than their predecessors, meaning the restaurants now use food more quickly. As a result, there’s less of a need for freezer space. Plauche is now developing designs that dedicate about 70 percent of walk-in space to refrigeration.

That’s not the only change that the redesign has seen since its rollout, Plauche notes. The company is also working closely with its franchisee construction committee to tweak both the space and the equipment package. Feedback from this group has led to several changes, including the reorganization of ingredients in the smoothie make table, as well as the addition of cutting boards on all make tables. That allows staffers to slide dishes along the production line instead of picking them up and placing them down at every stop.

Locations, Old and New

Tropical-Smoothie-5The smoothie production line features a 72-inch cold table with wells holding fresh fruits.Even with these changes, the redesign is essentially in place and running smoothly. The chain is now focusing on converting its existing stores to the new look. In addition to the 120 stores built with the Beach House design, about 75 existing restaurants have been reimaged. What’s more, Watson says the entire franchise system is currently in a required upgrade period; he expects all locations to have adopted the Beach House look by the end of 2017.

It is a relatively small investment for franchisees, typically costing $25,000 to $45,000. For that, franchisees get new floors, wall coverings, artwork and furnishings. Those willing to spend around $60,000 can bring the kitchen to the front of the house and add the smoothie bar. “We’re not asking the franchisees — at this point — to reimage the kitchen or bring in new equipment,” says Plauche. “It’s certainly an option for them — they can make the reimage as extensive as they like, but our requirements are to affect the dining experience for the customer.”

On top of the relatively low price tag, the metrics of the new stores make it an appealing investment. According to the company, restaurants with the new design have 10 percent more first-time visitors and increase existing customers’ visit frequency by 28 percent. Combine all that with the chain’s 2015 same-store sales growth of 11.2 percent, and franchisees have a solid reason to upgrade their stores.

The company continues to explore the development of new store types, including Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s first stand-alone units. The size of these restaurants will likely stay around 1,600 square feet, though the walk-ins could reside outside of the building. At that size, the basic layout and design shouldn’t change much from the typical in-line location. Instead, much of the development work for these freestanding stores is focused on the exterior look and feel, Watson says.

Nontraditional locations like malls, military bases and airports, remain on the chain’s radar too. Moving into these spaces, says Watson, shouldn’t be too challenging for the design and construction team. With the use of pre-prepped products and a relatively simple back of the house, much of the prototype becomes flexible by design.

These additional outlets, combined with the new community- and millennial-friendly look should only help this fast-growing chain grow even faster. “We’ve got a great growth trajectory. We’re looking at 15 to 20 percent system-size growth year-over-year,” Watson says. “The redesign is a big part of that.”  

 Key Players

  • CEO: Mike Rotondo
  • Chief Development Officer: Charles Watson
  • CFO and Administrative Officer: Barry Schnur
  • COO: Troy Godbee
  • Director of Design and Construction: Tom Plauche
  • Interior Designer: Internal team at Tropical Smoothie Cafe corporate, led by CEO Mike Rotondo
  • Equipment Dealer: Hockenbergs

Facts of Note

  • Chain Headquarters: Atlanta
  • Year Founded: 1997
  • Number of Units: More than 510
  • Unit Size (prototype): 1,600 sq. ft. (30% BOH, 20% kitchen, 40% dining, 10% restroom)
  • Seats (prototype): 38
  • Location Type: 85% in-line retail, 10% drive-thru, 5% nontraditional
  • Total System Sales: $261 million in 2015
  • Check Average: $8.25
  • Equipment Package Cost: $73,870
  • Average Unit Volume: More than $634,000, with top 50% reporting more than $806,000
  • Unit Growth Projections: Plans to have 800 locations open across U.S. by 2018

Photos courtesy of Tropical Smoothie Cafe