“Why is there a shortage of healthy fast food?” This is the question that made Nick Kenner and Rob Crespi set on their ambitious quest to open a concept that would offer nutritious, healthy foods in a quick-service environment, at affordable prices while being environmentally conscious.
In 2006, Kenner and Crespi opened their first location at 320 Park Avenue in New York. The young entrepreneurs – Kenner was just 25 when Just Salad took off – had some finance experience but no food industry background, so they enlisted the help of chef Laura Pensiero.
Pensiero, chef and creator of the Just Salad menu, graduated from the International Culinary Institute and has extensive experience in the food industry as an author, culinary consultant, registered dietitian and advocate of eating food produced locally.
Pensiero has been recognized at local and national levels, as well. In 2005, O, The Oprah Magazine named her one the “Five Most Giving and Gifted Food Professionals” in recognition of her work supporting the Hudson Valley farmers, ranchers and food artisans.
Pensiero joined Kenner and Crespi after founding Chef4Life, a life-long initiative focused on making healthy food enjoyable, which was exactly the goal Just Salad’s founders had set for themselves. “Chef Laura [Pensiero] has made it a priority to stay true to the Just Salad mission: offering meals that are healthy, delicious and affordable,” Kenner says. “She designed the Just Salad menu from front to back, creating unique homemade dressings, as well as 13 enticing chef-designed salads.”
Guests at Just Salad can choose one of the chef-designed options, such as the Hudson Valley Mix, with baby spinach, butternut squash, broccoli, apples, goat cheese, beets, pumpkin seeds and multigrain croutons, drizzled with a suggested low-fat horseradish chive dressing, or they can choose from more than 60 ingredients and almost 30 different dressings.
Just Salad founders made up for their lack of experience in the food industry by establishing a strategic partnership with Pensiero, and they also focused on the fundamental key element of any business: the end-consumer. “We were rookies [when we started] when it came to operations, but the plus was that everything we did was very customer-centric,” Kenner says.
To make sure they met and exceeded customers’ expectations, Just Salad created a concept that is as lively as it is healthy. “Just Salad is healthier, faster and offers more value for customers than other quick-service restaurants,” Kenner says. “Our products are well thought out and executed, but we also try to create a fun environment for our customers, from the reusable bowls to the music we play in the stores.”
The reusable bowls concept was created in an effort to promote environmentally conscious practices at the restaurants. The bowls can be purchased for $1 and every time a customer brings the bowl to the restaurant, they get two free essential toppings or one free cheese topping.
But the most important ingredient in Just Salad’s success is the freshness of its produce. “Every store receives daily deliveries and, since every store moves a significant amount of produce, keeping that freshness comes easier to us than most other places,” Kenner explains. “We also just went organic on our spring mix and will continue to go organic on other lettuces as it makes sense.”
Kenner and Crespi plan to keep growing in the New York market and will consider other opportunities in other areas as they become feasible. This year, the company plans on having twice as many units as it did at the end of 2012.
“People continue to eat healthier and we continue to add more staff and more locations to accommodate this consumer market,” Kenner says.