Rich Wagner’s life has gotten easier in recent years. As the co-founder and senior vice president of Nature’s Table, a 68-unit healthier-eating fast-casual concept started in Florida in the late 1980’s, he’s seen the concept pick up some momentum as Americans have generally started favoring healthier and more transparent restaurants.
We spoke of the concept’s recent growth spurt just as the 68th Nature’s Table location opened in St. Petersburg, Florida, with plans for two more in the surrounding area. Of that total, 57 locations are so-called non-traditional units that are smaller and tailor-made for captive audiences in places like office buildings, hospitals and college campuses.
“We have a very versatile blueprint and are easily adaptable without a hood or fryer,” Wagner said. “We’re unique in that, having a business model that can work in office buildings” and other locations “bigger brands shy away from.”
The bulk of Nature’s Table locations are in the Sunshine State, with others in the Midwest, Colorado, Kansas, Texas and California, among others.
Wagner has a 23-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son, and he said they are part of the younger generations that focus on eating organic and take food transparency very seriously.
“When we first started we didn’t sell any Coke or Pepsi products, we were juice and carrots,” he said of the company’s start decades ago. “My father had a health food juice company for years and years—it just came naturally to me and we never had a donut in our house.”
Having seen other healthy-eating trends come and go—namely the meal-replacement craze of the 1980s—Wagner said things are different now with the rise of food delivery services like Blue Plate and Blue Apron gaining traction and adding an entirely new food category between grocery stores and restaurants.
“The meal replacement segment of franchising came on and didn’t do very well,” he said. “I see this being a much better venture for these companies and I think they’re going to have good success.”
Now that Nature’s Table has ramped up its growth, it’s focused on branching into more parts of the country, increasing its presence in the Midwest and continuing a focus on non-traditional locations including hospitals and airports that are, again, very on trend.
“We have a very versatile blueprint, we’re easily adaptable without a hood or fryer, and we’re able to produce a lot of volume out of a small spot,” he said.
The Fackih family of Florida, which came to the United States as refugees from Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, might be the biggest brand cheerleaders in the Nature’s Table system, with five of its six members fully immersed in the brand and focused on quickly adding new locations.
Parents Nader and Jackie started their first location in 2004, with three of their children joining the business as part of a separate venture. Twelve years after that first family location, sons Samer, Shadi and Amer have opened four additional units with goals of eventually building a larger, traditional-format store with a drive-thru.
Shadi, 28, postponed taking the bar exam to dive head-first into the family’s expanding empire, while explaining that he and his brothers had to sell their parents on their interest in helping grow the brand.
“It’s always been taboo to work in the cafe, because education, education, education,” he said of his parents’ push toward academic achievements. “That’s always the theme, but eventually we had to convince them we are passionate about this too, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of—you guys have found something really good, we believe in Nature’s Table and love their food, and we think we should bring this to as many people as we can.”
The menu boasts items like protein bowls made of the typical roster of in vogue ingredients: kale, quinoa, spinach and avocado. Fackih said a wider goal is giving American eaters an easy option that’s drastically healthier than the fare at traditional fast-food and fast-casual restaurants.
“There’s no reason there’s a McDonald’s on every corner in America, but not a Nature’s Table,” he added. “Why is it absurd that if I want to buy a fruit cup in a drive-thru I would have to work really hard to find a place that has that? Why is that a normal thing?”
Shadi said he and his brothers are unwilling to pass on what they view as a can’t-miss opportunity. “If it’s not going to be us, it’s going to be somebody else,” he said. “People do not sleep on this kind of thing.”
By, Tom Kaiser
October 26, 2016
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