Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing franchise series, which highlights brands that are new to or aggressively expanding via franchising. Is your restaurant starting to franchise? Email us at [email protected].
When fitness industry veteran Steele Smiley opened his first Crisp & Green restaurant in Wayzata, Minnesota, in 2016, it was never his intention to build a holding company with multiple brands.
But by 2023, Smiley had grown his single-store into Steele Brands, which includes fast casual Mexican food brand Paco & Lime and plant-based Stalk & Spade. The restaurant platform has a total unit pipeline of over 250 stores, the majority of which will be Crisp & Green locations. Paco & Lime launched last year and Stalk & Spade opened in 2021. Both of these concepts opened their first locations in Wayzata.
Customers loved Crisp & Green’s healthy menu of salads, bowls and smoothies and kept coming back, Smiley said. The brand opened its second location in March 2017 and a third later that year, both in Minnesota, Smiley said. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Crisp & Green had seven total stores. The restaurants were shut down for two weeks due to covid restrictions, but when customers started coming back in the third week, stores became increasingly busy.
“We were doing four or five times the delivery volume that we had ever done before,” Smiley said. “It pushed our stores into record volume. At that point we decided to get really aggressive with franchising.”
Three months into the pandemic, Crisp & Green sold its first out-of-state franchise license for Texas. Three years later, it signed its largest development agreement for 40 units with franchisee Salads & Smoothies. This franchisee previously had a contract for 11 units. In addition to stores within Minnesota, the deal will expand Crisp & Green’s presence into new markets including Phoenix, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
“We’re in a position now … where there’s a lot of health-focused brands,” Smiley said. “There are very few that have gone nationwide at the level of speed that we have. Most of them are regionalized.”
Crisp & Green’s experienced corporate team has allowed it to scale up quickly. Steel Brands CEO Kelly C. Bates, who joined the holding company in November, is a 30-year restaurant veteran. The company also has full teams of real estate, technology and supply chain experts that help franchisees through every aspect of the business.
Training at Crisp & Green is extensive, and includes three weeks to a month of training within corporate stores as well as site training and corporate support for a couple weeks after the opening. During and after openings, the technology and field operations teams and an executive member will be on location to help with operations, Smiley said. Crisp & Green also provides ongoing franchisee check-in support.
Crisp & Green differentiates itself from other health-focused brands through its scratch-made menu with affordable prices — it has many items under $10 — as well as its free community fitness classes on the first Saturday of each month at the restaurants. These classes help introduce the brand to the community without any pressure to buy the product.
“They get to experience the community and find out that [the store] is a welcoming place for them to come back and maybe have lunch the next day or try it with their family over the weekend,” Smiley said.
Development plans: Crisp & Green has sold roughly 250 licenses and is in development or operating in 25 states. These units will be developed over three to five years, depending on real estate availability, Smiley said. This spring, Crisp & Green will debut in its eighth state with an opening in Bentonville, Arkansas, according to a press release emailed to Restaurant Dive This opening is part of a five-unit deal with The Green Guys for new restaurants in Arkansas and North Carolina. Crisp & Green expects to double its store count this year.
The company doesn’t have any specific geographic targets as it pursues nationwide expansion. Within any market, however, Crisp & Green targets AAA sites, or prime real estate on the best corners in the ideal towns, Smiley said.
“That may slow down your development a little bit because you’re looking for the best available sites, but that also provides the great locations for you to have the highest volumes when the stores get up and running,” he said.
Ideal franchisees: Crisp & Green is targeting experienced multi-unit franchisees. Its average franchisees have committed to developing over 10 stores, Smiley said.
Franchise quick facts
- Initial investment: $683,050 to $1.3 million
- Liquid capital: $1 million
- Cumulative net worth: $2 million
- Royalty fee: 7%
- Marketing fee: 2%