Tropical Smoothie Cafe builds traffic and sales through the power of LTOs

In the “other beverage/snack” category, this chain stands out in the Top 500 by paying equal attention to food and drink, health and indulgence.
Mojito and Cosmo smoothies
Photo courtesy of Tropical Smoothie Cafe

Tropical Smoothie Cafe may be known for its namesake beverage, but its growth is also coming from food.

“We put an equal focus on smoothies and food when innovating the menu,” said Kristi Bullock, director of menu innovation at the 1,075-unit Atlanta-based chain.

Over the last year, Tropical Smoothie Cafe has kept a steady pace launching limited-time offers, which are spread over five to eight promotional windows a year. “Internally, we keep our foot on the gas pedal, typically launching two food items and two smoothies in each window,” Bullock said.

That pace has moved Tropical Smoothie Cafe into the No. 52 spot in Technomic’s 2022 Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report ranking, rising from No. 58 last year. Systemwide sales are up 37.7% year over year, and it is the leading chain in the category, beating out competitors such as Smoothie King (No. 76) and Jamba (No. 88).

Smoothie chain competition

But the category as a whole grew as well, with a number of smaller players heating up the competition. Playa Bowls, a fast casual that menus smoothies, bowls and juices, landed in the Top 500 ranking for the first time in 2022.

Emerging concepts that focus on smoothies and juices are also making their mark. Main Squeeze Juice Co. grew sales 65.3% year over year, increasing locations by over 44% to 26 units. And sales at Beyond Juicery & Eatery rose a whopping 86.9%, according to Technomic

During the pandemic, more consumers embraced food as medicine, seeking out ingredients with immune boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. Most of the juice and smoothie newcomers embrace this wellness trend, promoting cleanses, detox drinks and beverages with extra “wellness” shots.

Finding the right balance

Tropical Smoothie makes a point of balancing health with indulgence, offering smoothies with functional ingredients and antioxidant-rich superfruits along with those that satisfy sweet cravings.

“We want to communicate the craveability of our menu, and we romance each item, highlighting the ingredients and their specialness,” said Bullock.

Smoothies and teriyaki flat

The Dragonfruit Smoothie and Starfruit Smoothie (above) are two recent LTOs that boast a “health halo.” Both feature nutritious superfruits blended with other fresh produce, including mango, pineapple, strawberries and banana. The menu also offers Super Veggie smoothies, whipped up with spinach, kale, ginger, avocado and often, fruits.

Several of these are labeled “fan faves,” as are the Balanced Fusions. This group features functional ingredients that are less mainstream, such as chia seeds, flax seed and whey protein, combined with “fun” flavors like peanut butter, pomegranate, blueberries and strawberries. “We always keep an eye on taste and flavor, not just functionality,” said Bullock.

Guests can also add a dose of powdered collagen, probiotic, fat burner or energizer to any smoothie. “There’s a decent amount of pickup on these,” said Bullock. “Some guests want supplements, but others say they’re drinking fresh fruit, and that’s a win for them.”

Bahama Mama

In fact, the chain’s best-selling smoothie veers toward the indulgent side. The Bahama Mama (above) is a blend of white chocolate, coconut, strawberries and pineapple. The Mocha Madness is also popular, a mix of chocolate, coffee, cappuccino and yogurt.

Differentiating with the tropical hook

This summer, the Watermelon Mojito Smoothie and Mango Berry Cosmo are returning to the menu—two “mocktail”-inspired smoothies that fit in with the concept’s tropical theme. “We’ve had great success with these mocktails and will continue to ideate against our tropical hook,” said Bullock, referring to her R&D work with Tropical Smoothie’s head chef, Chris Runkle.

Many of the food items also have a tropical twist. The core menu focuses on flatbreads, wraps, sandwiches and salads, with Tropical Teriyaki Flatbread the current featured item. It’s a combo of grilled chicken, tropical teriyaki sauce, melted mozzarella, romaine and tomato topped with roasted pineapple salsa. The suggested pairing is the Dragonfruit Smoothie.

For summer, the Salsa Verde 'Dilla will be joining the quesadilla lineup. The new Salsa Verde Chicken Quesadilla is designed to partner with the mojito and cosmo “mocktail” smoothies.

Coming up at the end of the year are two island flats: The Hawaiian Chicken Flatbread, enhanced with the same housemade pineapple salsa but flavored with a new barbecue sauce, and a Thai Crunch Island Flat. The beverage pairing for the holiday season is a celebratory Red Sangria Smoothie.

Tropical Smoothie Cafe really believes in the power of LTOs to showcase innovation and engage guests, Bullock said.

But not everything innovative rises to the top during the R&D process, she admitted. “We played around with turmeric [an anti-inflammatory] but it didn’t score well in consumer taste tests. We’ll keep it in the forefront so when our guest is ready, we’ll be ready,” said Bullock.

Next moves

Customization is growing every day at the chain, and Tropical Smoothie Cafe is paving the way with a new app and loyalty program launching later this month. It will allow guests to customize digital orders, not just when visiting the cafes.

Bullock and Runkle also are working on finalizing their core menu strategy.

“We want to be really clear about our direction,” she said. “Should ingredients be all natural, should our items be no-sugar added … There are more people coming into the juice and smoothie space now and we have to make sure we offer what our guests are looking for.”

What Tropical Smoothie Cafe is clear about is value. Smoothie prices are $5.39 to $6.39—lower than most of the competition. “We’re seen as a better value and we want to maintain that position in the marketplace,” said Bullock.

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