By Tom Kaiser, Associate Editor, Franchise Times
It must be refreshing to be Rich Wagner these days. He’s the co-founder and senior vice president of Nature’s Table, a 68-unit healthier-eating fast-casual concept that was started in Florida back in 1977. Now, after 39 years, the concept is finally growing quickly as Americans are generally starting to favor healthier and more transparent restaurants.
I spoke with Wagner earlier this week, just as Nature’s Table was opening its 68th location in St. Petersburg, Florida. Many of the brand’s locations are in the Sunshine State, with a few others in the Midwest, Colorado, Kansas, Texas and California, among others.
Knowing that the franchise world is relatively small and professionals tend to migrate between companies, I was surprised Wagner chose to stay at this brand for so long—longer than I’ve been alive! His answer, centering on his passion and belief for the brand, may have sounded boilerplate until he explained that he grew up in a household that took food and health very seriously in an era that likely made them low-level outcasts.
Now that he has his own children, a 23-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son, Wagner said his children are part of the younger generations that focus on eating organic and take food transparency very serious.
“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.”
For me, that personal back story added authenticity to the Nature’s Table concept, rather than a new brand that could have been born through focus group testing.
Having seen other healthy-eating trends come and go—namely the meal-replacement craze of the 1980s—Wagner thinks things are different now with the rise of food delivery services like Blue Plate and Blue Apron that have gained traction in recent years and added an entirely new category residing between grocery 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.”
Even though meal delivery services have a lot of buzz these days, many restaurant analysts caution their adoption rates are still relatively low, somewhere around 3 percent of the U.S. adult population according to NPD.
Now that Nature’s Table brand has ramped up its growth, the company is focused on branching into more parts of the country, increasing its locations in the Midwest and continuing its focus on non-traditional locations including hospitals and airports, 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. “We’re unique in that and have a business model that can work in these [locations] bigger brands shy away from.”