Freshii ideas

Looking back, there was “this interesting moment of reflection, where I knew … if I can get through that moment I really feel I can get through anything.”

The Toronto Star
May 17, 2010

Freshii ideas
Matthew Corrin hopes to become the Starbucks of fresh food with a chain of 1,000 restaurants that offer custom-made dishes
Naomi Carniol Special to the Star


Matthew Corrin, 28, rebranded his original Lettuce eatery into the Freshii chain. Tara Walton/Toronto Star

Matthew Corrin did not have beginner’s luck. On the first day he opened a restaurant called Lettuce, the kitchen ran out of lettuce.

A few days later, while preparing food for the day, Corrin’s chef sliced off the tip of his thumb. Spotting the blood, the sous-chef fell off the table he was sitting on, broke his nose and passed out. An ambulance picked the pair up at 6:30 a.m. Corrin, who had never worked in a restaurant kitchen before, was left to figure out how to use the kitchen equipment.

“I started chopping lettuce. I started grilling bacon and chicken and cutting the avocado. And we got through it,” he says. Looking back, there was “this interesting moment of reflection, where I knew … if I can get through that moment I really feel I can get through anything.”

Those opening bumps are long behind Corrin, the 28-year-old founder and CEO of Freshii, a restaurant chain that serves on-the-go customized salads, wraps, burritos, yogurts, soups and rice bowls. The company’s tag line is “Fresh food. Custom built. Fast.”
There are 21 Freshii locations in Canada and the United States. Nine, including several in Toronto and one in Chicago, are corporate-owned. The rest, such as locations in Denver and Washington, are franchises.

About one new Freshii restaurant opens each week. By the end of 2010, 60 Freshii restaurants will be open around the world from Los Angeles to Vienna. By the end of the year, the company is expected to bring in $50 million in sales.

The inspiration for Freshii came to Corrin, who grew up in Winnipeg, while he was working in New York in publicity for fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.

“Every day for lunch, I was eating at this mom and pop deli around the corner from Oscar’s office. The quality was really great but the service was dull and the branding lacklustre,” he says. “I thought if you could take this fresh food concept and create a brand to it, you could potentially Starbucks the fresh food business.”

While Corrin had visions of building a fresh-food restaurant empire from the get-go, his business began modestly. In 2005, Corrin used $250,000 from his family to open his first fast fresh-food restaurant in Toronto’s TD Centre.

Then called Lettuce, the restaurant was quickly embraced by those working in nearby office towers who wanted to eat healthy but were pressed for time. It didn’t take long for Lettuce to become profitable and Corrin used the profits to open other locations around the city.

By 2007, Corrin had one restaurant in Chicago. He wanted to expand further into the United States. But he wasn’t sure Lettuce was the best name for his growing company. His restaurants were already offering more than salads. But it’s not easy to convince customers to order breakfast if your restaurant’s name is Lettuce.

Corrin researched other companies, such as Subway, that had rebranded themselves.

“Subway was initially called Pete’s Submarine Shop and when said really quickly it would sound like Pizza Marine Shop. Customers would get there and say, ‘Where is the pizza?’” So the company rebranded itself. “I thought, if they can do it, why can’t we do it?”

With the help of advertising agency Leo Burnett, in 2008 Lettuce was rebranded as Freshii. It’s “a broader name that connoted multiple – in the restaurant industry it’s called Day-parts – different reasons to come into Freshii throughout the day to leverage your fixed costs like rent and labour,” Corrin says. “Now at Freshii, we have strong breakfasts, strong desserts, strong snacks, strong lunches and strong dinners. The name Freshii really made that a better sell from a consumer perspective.”

With the new name, and three angel investors, Corrin was ready to expand big-time south of the border. Then the economy tanked. With stocks plunging and businesses filing for bankruptcy, traditional avenues for raising money became too difficult.

“My personality isn’t just to sit still and not do anything and wait for things to get better,” Corrin says. “So we said, ‘What are our other options?’ ”

Corrin looked to franchising. Instead of one-store deals, he aimed for multi-unit deals with well capitalized partners. Each partner could open anywhere from three to 40 stores in a particular city. So far, Freshii has signed franchise deals with 20 partners in 20 cities from Philadelphia to Calgary, New York to Dubai.

“Our strategy with franchising and growth isn’t, ‘What’s the next good market to go into?’ ” Corrin says. “It’s, ‘Where do we find great partners that we think will be very successful with the brand, who are completely aligned from a philosophical and a cultural and a strategic perspective?’ ”

Corrin plans to have 1,000 Freshii stores open by 2015. If 20 franchise partners open three stores a year for the next four years, it won’t take long to achieve that goal.

Corrin believes in thinking big. “Our goal for Freshii is to create the most convenient choice for fresh food, custom-built, fast across the world,” he says. It’s a long way from standing in that deli in New York. Corrin is building a fresh food empire, one customized wrap at a time.

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