With all the upheaval in the restaurant industry, the CEO of Sweetberry Bowls is having fun as a former tech guy who says he fell into foodservice. As Founder and CEO Desi Saran grows his franchised restaurant toward 20 locations and explores the full gamut of ghost kitchen and delivery opportunities, he and his team are trying to find creative ways to capitalize on every opportunity that’s cropped up in this everything-on-demand ecosystem.
Sweetberry Bowls is a fast-casual franchised restaurant serving indulgent and healthy fruit bowls, salads, oatmeal, smoothies and wraps. After the so-called technology geek started the brand less than two years ago, Saran sounds like a man who’s met his moment. He’s been expanding throughout its stomping grounds of New Jersey, while also bringing it to new states like Florida, Illinois and Virginia. The brand is moving quickly to gain experience in every corner of the radically reshaped restaurant world, which means researching delivery providers and their strategies, “tripling down” on ghost kitchens, catering and investigating the creation of new concepts to build off of Sweetberry’s existing inventory and infrastructure. It’s a lot to plot at once, but he’s the happiest warrior I’ve encountered on these front lines of the great restaurant shakeup.
Ten months after opening its first location outside of the East Coast, 30 minutes west of Chicago in Elmhurst, Illinois, Sweetberry Bowls will soon be up and running inside the Windy City proper through ghost kitchen operator DineHive. Saran said low startup costs for delivery-only kitchens are the ideal way to build brand awareness in new markets without long-term contracts or six-figure tabs.
“We’re really trying to learn these delivery platforms inside and out,” Saran said of his drive to investigate the delivery brands themselves. “We doubled down our resources on delivery, because it’s increasing so much, and if we become experts, it’s really going to affect our topline and our profit margins and well.”
Sweetberry is talking with Kitchen United to lease additional kitchen space in Chicago, and possibly other cities to test the waters for future brick-and-mortar locations. It is also investigating creating additional sub-brands that could be operated as delivery-only concepts in both third-party kitchens or existing Sweetberry restaurants. That could be a snack-based brand taking advantage of existing fruit inventory or something totally different and complementary like burgers or wings to hit a different day part.
“Let’s say Los Angeles, I can pump Sweetberry out of that space and hit three, four or five brands together where we’re operating out of one space and those brands are tied into each other,” he said. “That’s when it makes sense when you’re housing different brands under one roof.”
Saran is also planning to open one or two ghost kitchens of his own in New Jersey, with the wider goal of giving him a laboratory in which to experiment with these new concepts. While reality can quash plans as the ground shifts underfoot, Saran speculates that creating four or five delivery-only brands is within his team’s bandwidth.
He’s simultaneously preparing to open his own ghost kitchen in Union City, New Jersey, where his company took over a space from a retiring restaurant operator. The deal included all major kitchen equipment, so Saran’s capital expenditure “was almost nothing.” The plan is to get the location up and running within the next 50 days. He’s also open to partnering with other restaurants to see if Sweetberry could be a sub-brand within those locations, adding that they would just need inventory, packaging and a blender to start delivery operations.
Third-party volume at existing, traditional Sweetberry restaurants ranges from 10 to 20 percent of total sales. If push comes to shove between the brand’s franchise territories and ghost kitchen operations, Saran stressed that franchisees would take priority.
Sweetberry currently works with DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats and Postmates. Experience has shown the brand’s customers aren’t very price sensitive when it comes to paying for convenience. By creating delivery-only menus that allow the brand to charge off-premises customers more than in-store diners, the team has found customers thus far haven’t balked at paying $20 for what is normally a $10 acai bowl, brought right to them.
“They want to press buttons and will pay for the convenience, even if that’s double the cost,” he said, noting that Uber has since changed a policy around price increases allowing Sweetberry to pass a greater share of delivery costs onto customers.
While the topic of “tablet hell” is well documented, Saran said the real problem isn’t clutter at to-go stations, but reconciling financials with multiple delivery accounts for each location, which he said is a total of 85 accounts across the system. “As we grow the company,” he added, “that’s not scalable.”
Of Sweetberry’s 17 open locations, 13 are owned by the company. Going forward, the company is looking to expand solely through franchising, and may sell some company-owned restaurants to new or existing franchisees.
“We’re actually beating our sales projections right now,” Saran noted. “A lot of the plan we set out two years ago is coming to fruition, [so that] gives me the opportunity to explore other, fun options.”