Freshii's fresh take on fast food

  @FortuneMagazine April 11, 2013: 8:07 AM ET
TRA29 matthew currin freshii

Golden gut: The Freshii menu reflects Matthew Corrin's tastes.

(Fortune)

Matthew Corrin serves his customers the kind of food he personally loves: salads, quinoa, spicy lemongrass soup, and the occasional kale and lime smoothie. Only Corrin, 31, isn't a chef at a trendy bistro or the proprietor of a health-food joint. He's the founder and CEO of Freshii, a restaurant chain with 75 locations in six countries.

Freshii's concept isn't totally, well, fresh: Restaurants specializing in organic and healthy food have been around for decades, but are largely independent operations that cater to niche audiences. And Freshii's so-called fast-casual format takes a page from Chipotle Mexican Grill -- patrons wend their way through an assembly line, customizing soups, salads, wraps, and burritos with an assortment of fresh ingredients and toppings. But Freshii is groundbreaking because Corrin has found a way to standardize (and franchise) super-healthy dining for the masses, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm. Tristano expects other restaurant chains to follow Freshii's model and its menu. Indeed, McDonald's (MCD, Fortune 500) recently made Chicken McWrap sandwiches a permanent part of its U.S. lineup.

Corrin opened his first Freshii location in Toronto in 2005, seeding the business with $250,000 in personal savings and a loan from his parents. Corrin, who was just 23 years old at the time, felt there were not enough healthy, affordable lunchtime options for office workers and people on the go. The concept was a hit, and he added eight more stores in Canada. He moved Freshii's headquarters to Chicago in 2007 with an eye toward global expansion. By the end of the year Freshii will have 120 stores (most of them franchisee-owned) in eight countries, and Corrin expects annual revenue to top $90 million.

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Not long ago Freshii's food -- brown rice and tofu are staples of its U.S. menu -- would have been considered hippie fare, but Corrin's cuisine actually appeals to his fellow millennials, the influential generation of people now 20 to 35 years old. Studies show that members of Gen Y are more interested than earlier generations were in organic and unprocessed foods. Many aging boomers are now embracing the healthy foods found at Freshii, which not only shows calorie counts but also provides such other information as details on "good" and "bad" fats in its menu items.

Corrin may have started out obsessed with food quality, but these days he's just as focused on financial performance. "I became maniacal about listening to and reviewing quarterly and annual earnings calls of the best publicly traded restaurant stocks," Corrin says. "As a young founder, you don't know what you don't know, so you should learn from those who are already successful." His palate may have helped him launch the business, but he'll need to exercise his left brain to keep Freshii growing.

This story is from the April 29, 2013 issue of Fortune. To top of page



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