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Matthew Corrin, Freshii

Matthew Corrin, Freshii

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Published by Darren Gluckman
Salad. But not just salad.
Salad. But not just salad.

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Published by: Darren Gluckman on Apr 23, 2012
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03/23/2015

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Healthy and fast are at the root of Matthew Corrin’s take-out revolution.

By Darren Gluckman Photos courtesy of Freshii

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breath of
Did the experience change your appreciation for the show, or for Letterman himself ? His response is similarly cagey. Firsthand encounters, he suggests, are “always a very different dynamic. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” Can you name any of the business leaders who have mentored you or influenced you in any way? “I’d rather not.” Okay then. What TV shows do you watch? “That’s too personal. I think it says a lot about somebody.” This wariness seems a bit odd, especially given the reams of media coverage— and the accompanying interviews—flowing from his success as founder and CEO of Freshii, the health food chain that’s gone global since its modest introduction in Toronto in 2005. But perhaps it’s pre-

or someone in the restaurant busin e s s , M a tt h e w Corrin doesn’t like to dish. Asked about his fondest recollections from his time as a summer intern on the Late Show with David Letterman, a time he describes as “the summer of my life,” he demurs. “I probably signed a nondisclosure agreement about the things that took place there.”

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profile Matthew Corrin

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cisely this wealth of attention that has him slightly on edge, his guard up even at the most innocuous of inquiries. “Every so often,” he reveals toward the end of our chat, “I’ve had an article that’s incredibly inaccurate. And I’ll say to my wife, ‘Can you believe they put this in quotes?’ And she’ll say, ‘I’ve heard you say that before.’” In fact, his initial circumspection may have something to do with the fact that I’ve tracked him down, as it were, on a vacation with his family, near Sarasota, Florida, so it takes him a while to get his head back in the spin game. At one point, he’s got a sleeping daughter (one of two) draped across his shoulder. At another, when asked about the origins of the Freshii name, he credits, somewhat endearingly and not entirely credibly, his wife. “I think, as the story goes, my wife named it. So I think that’s exactly how we came up with it.” (He later explains that she was sitting beside him at the time he gave his answer.) But as befits a former public relations manager for Oscar de la Renta (the gig he landed and held for the next two years after the Late Show summer expired), it isn’t long before he’s artfully peppering his con-

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versation with key branding concepts—the phrase “fresh and healthy” makes five appearances in one response to a question about Freshii’s competition—and marketing-speak. “We have tons of competition across every city we operate in, and at the same time, we have very little competition. We’re a convenience business model. We’re not a destinationdriven business. So people come to us if it’s convenient and they want something fresh and healthy (1). And there’s lots of places that people can get fresh and healthy (2). I think we’re doing it in a way that’s higher quality than Subway, which also represents fresh and healthy (3), and with more options and ingredients. And on a scaled-up basis,
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when you think of a chain that’s trying to lead with fresh and healthy (4) versus leading with being a burrito place or a yogurt place or a sub place, we’re not any of those things. We’re just a fresh and healthy (5) place you can come to and get a bunch of different types of food. We’re the biggest in North America that does that.” Indeed, with 50 locations on this side of the Atlantic, and outlets in Austria and Dubai, 500 global employees, and about $50 million in sales last year, Freshii is scaling up at an impressive pace. Although initially resistant to the idea of franchising, Corrin has come around. Industry-standard

franchising fees are typically in the low six figures, but Freshii’s franchise partners pay $30,000 up front, along with 6 percent royalties on earnings and 3 percent toward advertising. Franchisees aren’t necessarily small operators: The first U.S. franchisee was a Chicago-based restaurateur who has committed to opening 80 locations over a 10-year period. At the moment, Corrin plans to open 700 new Freshii spots, half franchised, half corporateowned, over the next five years. Heady stuff for a guy who failed business at the Uni-

versity of Western Ontario (“I didn’t understand it,” he’s said) and who opened his first location (originally called Lettuce Eatery) in Toronto in 2005 without so much as a day’s worth of experience in the restaurant business. That first week, in what has become a legendary footnote in the Freshii story, his chef lopped off the tip of his thumb, his kitchen manager—fainting from the sight of blood— broke his nose, and a rogue employee walked off with a bundle of cash. As luck

profile Matthew Corrin

would have it, that initial location was well chosen. Deep in the heart of the financial district, the high volume allowed the store to “iterate,” as Corrin puts it, and gave it the margins necessary to adjust to the initial growing pains that might have killed off a store in a zone with less traffic. “If I use my Letterman analogy,” he says, “what I thought I knew and what I actually knew were incredibly different. What I did learn is that salads are very lunch-focused and season-

al, and work really well in warm climates and warm weather. When you’re in Toronto, you need to figure out how to make your business model work because the rent doesn’t get cheaper in the wintertime.” That realization eventually convinced Corrin to shelve the Lettuce name. “The evolution of our menu led us to say we’re more than just salads, and yet we have a name that so connotes salads, and we should reconsider that before we continue to scale. We opened 10

Corrin with a line of fresh ingredients used at freshii stores.

stores before we changed the name to Freshii.” But the name wasn’t the only thing that changed along the way. “We’ve changed so much from store one to store 55,” Corrin says, when asked to identify mistakes he’s made. “We really thought of Toronto as a bit of an incubator—launch fast, fail fast, iterate, launch again—and used it as our barometer for what we should do in all these other markets. And I think we probably changed a bit too frequently, at the expense of our guests.” Those iterations have made Freshii an attractive business, and not just for eating. The privately held company has received acquisition offers, Corrin acknowledges, but he isn’t prepared to pass the tongs, at least not yet. “Certainly, the time isn’t right,” he states. And it may not be right for some time. “I will say that the longer I’m in the business, the longer I want to be in the business.” He could be in it for a while. Only 30, Corrin has been part of a host of Top
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30 Under 30 and Top 40 Under 40 lists, and he sees his relative youthfulness as an asset. “I’m really fortunate to be a young CEO,” he says. “Being young has allowed me to surround myself with some really successful business leaders in the restaurant space.” While he won’t name them, he does allow that he’s had an opportunity to meet with “the CEOs and founders of the five largest restaurant and beverage chains in the world.” One might reasonably speculate that Howard Schultz is among them, given Corrin’s avowed aspirations to become “the Starbucks of the fresh food business.” He lives in Toronto now, but he grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with his

ABove: Exterior of a freshii store. Below: a sample wrap from freshii.

dentist father, nurse mother, a younger brother and a sister. Happy childhood? “That’s really personal,” he objects, though his parents are credited as early investors, and he opens up with some enthusiasm about the company founded by his brother, Adam, which Freshii has partnered with for recruitment purposes. EpicRise is “essentially a recruitment tool for Gen Y,” explains Corrin. When Freshii has a job opening, for example, it may receive hundreds of applications. Applicants are required to complete an online, algorithm-based contest, which is tailored to the open position, and which “shoots out” the top-10 per-

formers for Freshii to then consider. Despite his poor performance in business class, Corrin—who graduated with a degree in media relations—has been invited back, not to redo the semester, but as a guest lecturer with an enviable track record in the real world. And for all his initial reserve, he finally relents on that most revealing of subjects: “I think Californication is a great show. And I love The Good Wife, with Julianna Margulies.” Conspicuously absent is his former employer, Letterman, but one gets the sense that evolution, rather than stagnancy, keeps Corrin’s life fresh.
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