Blood, Sweat, But No Tears

“You’re dependant on hourly kids. You’re putting the brand into their hands to lead, guide, make or break for you. Thousands of things have to happen right every day. Every mistake is 1000th point off EBITDA.”

Franchise Times
June 1, 2010

Blood, Sweat, But No Tears
A Freshii approach to running a business
Nancy Weingartner


Freshii founder Matthew Corrin opened his first restaurant in Toronto, a salad bar where all the work is done for you. Diners choose their ingredients, mark them on a form and then pick up the freshly made salad a few minutes later.

Matthew Corrin knew how to freshen up the salad bar concept, but he didn’t know how to man a lunch rush. It didn’t matter, however, because the new restaurant owner had hired two culinary grads to do the actual work. On opening day, he showed up in loafers and a nice dress shirt, “ready to shake hands.” As the first employee set about chopping up the hundred pounds of romaine lettuce for the impending lunch rush, he chopped off the tip of his finger.

“Blood was everywhere,” the 28-year-old founder of Freshii said. Corrin sent the employee off to the emergency room and went about tossing pounds of bloody romaine in the trash. He glanced over at his remaining employee in time to see him fall to the floor in a dead faint, breaking his nose in the process. While waiting for the ambulance, “I called my wife to tell her we’re not opening,” he says. Her reply was, “Of course we’re opening.” She jumped in the car and the two worked the lunch hour—making custom salads and wraps, ringing up sales and chopping romaine without losing their tempers or their fingers.

It was at that moment in 2005 that the former fashion publicist fully understood the restaurant business journey he was about to embark on. “It’s not rocket science, it’s just hard work,” he says, ruefully. “(But) I will never fail because of lack of hard work.” He stayed on the line for the next nine months to learn the part of the business he eventually would turn over to people even younger than he. In retrospect, Corrin admits that hiring a restaurant consultant may have made the journey smoother, but he would have ended up in the same place. And in all fairness, he was just 23 at the time.

Hearing Corrin talk about the restaurant business, one wonders why someone not born into the industry would choose it to scratch their entrepreneurial itch. “Competition is fierce,” he says. “You’re dependant on hourly kids. You’re putting the brand into their hands to lead, guide, make or break for you. Thousands of things have to happen right every day. Every mistake is 1000th point off EBITDA.”

To borrow from literature: You may be the captain of your own faith, but if the ship goes down, you’re the last one to surface. Hard work only covers so many ports in the storm. “If staff doesn’t show up for lunch (shift), I can’t make that up at night,” he points out.

But when things go right—at they seem to be for Freshii right now with 21 restaurants open and 60 expected by the end of the year—the restaurant business feeds the soul, as well as the customers lined up to eat something that’s actually good for them. “You create a culture where others are inspired to be successful,” he says.


A fresh face
It was actually Corrin’s mother who pointed out the potential of salad-bar restaurants when she visited him in New York City. It was not something familiar to his Canadian upbringing. He started investigating, and decided good-for-you food had room for another contender. He then tossed his salad tongs in the ring, opening his first restaurant in Toronto.

Corrin doesn’t call his food, salads, wraps and soups, “healthy,” a term he claims is associated with tasteless fare. His calling card is “fresh.” It’s up to the customer to be “healthy.” Men can add steak and blue cheese atop lettuce to score points with their wives, using the “Honey, I had a salad for lunch” ruse.

Transparency is key. So much so, Freshii has clear bowls, clear bags and silverware that’s biodegradable. Its tagline sums it up: “Fresh food, custom built, fresh.” Corrin knew the concept would fly in chic urban areas like New York, L.A. and Toronto. To ensure it was scalable, he brought it to meat-and-potatoes-loving Chicago. A friend of a friend introduced him to Dave Grossman, a former Subway developer who was working with General Growth Properties, a real estate investment trust that develops malls. It was while giving Corrin guidance on the Chicago market that Grossman saw the potential for developing the concept himself.

“I loved the food, and once I loved the food, I started asking sales, food costs,” Grossman says. He was attracted to the simplicity of the concept—“no grease, no hoods, easy to run and no need to hire chefs.” “It reminded me of Subway,” he says. “Matthew’s vision is phenomenal … He reminded me of Fred DeLuca (Subway’s founder, who started the concept at 17) and I think the world of Fred DeLuca.” Grossman can also attest to Corrin’s assertion that no one works harder than he does: “I work nights; I work weekends. I e-mail him and within 10 minutes he responds.”

Alex Blair, who works above Grossman’s Freshii in Chicago’s Loop at the exclusive Equinox fitness center (pictured left), also was drawn to the concept. The 23-year-old personal trainer is raising the money needed to open eight restaurants in Chicago, through networking—“sitting down with people with money and pitching,” he explains. As the top trainer at Equinox in downtown Chicago, Blair says he’s met and trained a good number of high-powered people. “And they all eat at Freshii every day,” he says.

Blair, like Corrin, is a young superstar. At 21, his father told him he could get him a job at J.P Morgan, a leading financial firm, however, Blair went with Equinox, where he saw the potential to earn more. At 21, he says, he was earning a six-digit salary—which is a lot of training sessions.

“Matthew is the spitting image of myself when he was 23,” Blair says. “We’re super-über passionate about a product.” Corrin’s concept doesn’t just have a good-tasting product, Blair contends, but a well-designed business plan and a product that’s been formulated to produce ROI.

“He (Corrin) has an awesome quality to find people like him,” Blair says. If you can’t outwork him, you can always join him.

Gaining Momentum
Before starting his own brand, Corrin worked for two iconic brands: Late Night Host David Letterman and fashion legend Oscar de la Renta.

As an intern for Letterman (no, not that intern), he was the one off camera holding the door for the talk show host as he ran from his dressing room to the stage. Working for the 70-year-old fashion icon in his public relations department taught Corrin to respect family businesses. He admired de la Renta’s level of confidence and conviction in what he was doing.

Corrin has a bit of star status himself. His concept, then named Lettuce Eatery, won Canada’s prestigious Cadillac Fairview’s Achievement in Retail Concepts in 2005, which came with a monetary prize that translated nicely into expansion plans. In addition, he was chosen as VISA’s small business spokesman for Canada. The “job” came about through a chain of fortuitous incidents. “Momentum breeds momentum,” he says. He appeared on a billboard dressed in an Etro designer suit for Harry Rosen, an upscale clothing retailer in Toronto. Someone saw the billboard and put his picture and story in an in-flight magazine. A passenger who worked for a fitness magazine read the article and named him the magazine’s entrepreneur of the month. Someone from VISA saw that article and decided he’d be the perfect example of a VISA-wielding, small businessman.

Franchise Times saw none of that and still asked him to speak at its Franchise Finance & Development conference, where we were so impressed by his story that we followed up with this story, even though he had appeared the previous month in a few paragraphs about young entrepreneurs. Where’s it spiral up from here? Corrin is holding the door open for a couple dozen more franchisees.

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