Freshii seeks fresh ideas from tech entrepreneurs


Is opening a restaurant in an entrepreneurial hub the best way to solicit operational ideas? Fast-casual Freshii is about to find out.

The chain’s latest Chicago location, which sits at the entrance of tech hub 1871, is set up as an incubator of sorts, soliciting creative solutions from the 325-plus startup companies that set up shop next door.

Through its Project campaign, Freshii is seeking ideas within eight categories—spanning menu, disposal, refrigeration, efficiency and seating—from members of 1871 and entrepreneurs around the globe.

Since the store opened in September, submissions have been wide ranging, running the gamut from highly tech-oriented to very fundamental, franchisee Alex Blair says.

“The wealth of ideas that we’ve generated so far is impressive,” he says. “We’ve had some suggestions that are a huge departure from our idea train—which is fantastic because it gives us an entirely new perspective on hyper-focused details of our business.”

Once an idea is chosen, it will be tested at the restaurant anywhere from one month to one year, depending on its level of success, Blair says. From there, it may move into a larger test phase at a handful of stores or roll out to the entire Freshii system.

There is no hard-and-fast deadline on submissions, he notes, so the team will keep considering ideas as they roll in. So far, a majority of entries have been under the “team” category, an area the brand considers a key priority.  

This Freshii, Blair’s fourth, has a somewhat calmer vibe than the chain’s other locations, forgoing the usual background music. Customers at this store are likely to sit and stay a while—often reading or conducting meetings—and thanks to a partnership with Metropolis Coffee, they can order from a larger-than-normal coffee menu to maintain focus.

Traffic at this location also follows nontraditional patterns—Blair says the noon rush is less noticeable than at his other Freshii outposts, adding that it’s typical for an 1871 customer to grab lunch at 2 p.m. and linger.

The location was built using the chain’s most updated design style, Blair says, with an eye toward sustainability. Countertops were constructed from recycled paper—a Freshii first—and reclaimed wood was used throughout. Some of the decor, including a backlit sign bearing mantras such as “Let’s love kale,” was repurposed from tables used by the space’s former occupant, an Intelligentsia coffee shop.

Though it may be quiet inside the restaurant, customers are talking outside of it. With no street access or exterior signage, the 36-seat location relies largely on word of mouth to get people in the door.

Customers love the new store, Blair says. “To have a brand like Freshii inside 1871 gives startups the opportunity to fuel properly on the turn of a dime.”

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