TORONTO — The pulse industry faces one considerable stumbling block in its attempt to market its products as healthy, says a restaurateur.
Matthew Corrin, founder of Freshii, a healthy fast-food chain, said his customers equate healthy with fresh, not dried or canned product, which is how most pulses are sold.
“I think that’s a really interesting struggle that the industry may face,” he told delegates attending the 30th annual Pulse and Special Crops Convention.
“It sort of feels like (pulses are) a little bit in this grey zone.”
Freshii expects to open its 300th location later this year. The company operates in 22 countries around the world.
Corrin said pulses are used in six of the food items it sells, or less than 10 percent of its product line.
“We took chickpeas off the menu last year. I love chickpeas but we wanted to go can-free,” he said.
Lee Moats, chair of Pulse Canada, was intrigued by Corrin’s comments.
“He mentions a barrier and it’s an important one,” he said.
“It isn’t one that has made our radar screen.”
Moats said it’s a case of perception getting in the way of fact.
“We have some great scientific proof about the value of pulses for human health. There’s no doubt it’s a healthy food,” he said.
The pulse industry has several initiatives aimed at increasing consumer awareness about the health benefits of adding pulses to their diets. Moats said they may also need to convince consumers to broaden their definition of fresh.
“How do we tap into the idea that fresh is more than just lettuce out of the cooler?” he said.
Corrin offered advice on how to reach millennials, those in their 20s and 30s, with those messages. He believes the pulse industry should use celebrities to spread the word because millennials love and respect celebrities.
Freshii has teamed up with Ironman triathlete Lionel Sanders to help tell the company’s story.
The Freshii management team is made up entirely of millennials. Corrin is the oldest member of the team at 34. They don’t need to poll millennials to find out what they like; they just ask themselves.
Corrin opened his first outlet in Toronto in 2005 with a $250,000 loan from his parents. He hadn’t worked a day in the restaurant business and didn’t have a business plan, just a set of guiding principals.
The principal with the most impact is that talk is cheap and execution sets you apart.
“We don’t believe in sitting in board rooms talking about doing things. We believe in execution,” he said.
The company also believes in launching new stores fast and failing fast if need be. It opened its first 100 restaurants faster than McDonald’s, Subway and Starbucks.
Corrin said it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. In the first month that he opened the inaugural outlet in Toronto, he was robbed by employees twice.
The following month his kitchen manager sliced off part of his thumb with a knife and the other kitchen manager fainted at the site of the blood and then had a seizure.
“They were both carried away on stretchers at 6:30 in the morning,” he said.
There was a poor review of the restaurant in the Toronto Star and a lady threatened him with a $10,000 lawsuit for finding a bug in her salad.
So how did Corrin respond to the rocky start? He opened a second outlet.
Each of the 300 restaurants in the chain are unique. There is no cookie cutter approach. And the menu is constantly changing.
Corrin is copying the Zara approach to retailing. Zara is a department store that takes the latest styles from fashion runways and makes them affordable to the masses.
Freshii scouts the foodie capitals of the world looking for local, cool restaurants with long lineups that are doing something different with food. Every 70 days a new food item inspired by one of those joints makes it onto the Freshii menu.
One example is sushito, which is essentially a burrito-sized sushi roll that stayed on the menu for two years until it started appearing in other restaurants.
“It was a phenomenal driver of our business,” he said.
Corrin also believes in unconventional marketing campaigns. Earlier this year he published an open letter to McDonalds’ chief executive officer Steve Easterbrook challenging him to open a Freshii outlet in one of its 14,000 stores around the world.
He promised him that the Freshii outlet would increase store sales by 30 percent and boost its annual profits by $250,000 after one year or he would refund McDonald’s the difference.
The letter generated stories in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Fox and CNBC, but he hasn’t heard back from Easterbrook yet.