Nick Kenner founded Just Salad in 2006 in New York City, to fill a void in salad-focused fast-casual restaurants. Today the brand has 70 restaurants across seven states. Soon, Just Salad will open its second Massachusetts location in Needham, at the former Three Squares Craft Kitchen & Cocktails location at 669 Highland Ave. Kenner, the brand’s CEO, spoke with the Observer about what his company does, and why his team is excited about Needham to help spearhead a larger move into Massachusetts. (This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
OBSERVER: Going back to 2006, give me the origin story of your company, tell me your tale.
KENNER: I grew up in New York, I went to Colgate (University) in upstate New York, and came back to Midtown, New York, got a job in finance, and thought that’s what I wanted to do with my life. And by the time I was two years in I felt I wanted to do something more, something else. And I started thinking about different opportunities. And one day, it kind of hit me when it was my turn to order lunch for the team. And every single person — man, woman, old, young — wanted a salad, and there was no place that did salad. And so we were forced to order a salad from a deli. And it was not good.
I came home that night, and I turned to my roommate (co-founder Rob Crespi) and I said, what do you think if there was a place that just did salad? Would there be an opportunity? He was like, wow. That’s a great idea … this was 2006. So this is before Sweetgreen. A little over a year before they opened their first restaurant. And it was also about the time where it was clear the sandwich was moving away, towards the salad, for the default lunch item of America. And I felt like I could help and do that. I’ve always been passionate about health and sustainability. Marrying that was kind of a no-brainer.
OBSERVER: So you did mention Sweetgreen, I assume they are your big competitor. What is one thing (customers) might think of that differentiates you?
KENNER: I don’t think there’s a market we exist in where we don’t compete with them. But I would say we get more comparisons to Trader Joe’s and they would get more comparisons to Whole Foods. They’re a little bit more of a higher price point. Our product is, in my opinion, best in class. And so the amount of focus on operations and service and connection with our guests that walk in I think is pretty apparent to most Just Salad customers. But most important, I think we have the best tasting product in the category. And I think that’ll shine through and I do think the price point and the sustainability efforts are also well recognized.
OBSERVER: So have you been up here to scout the location, or the larger area? How familiar are you with Needham?
KENNER: So we’re rolling out nationally right now. But a lot of our focus is on the northeastern suburbs, which includes Massachusetts, and actually the only urban area we’re rolling out right now is Boston. And we’re actually opening our first store (in the state) this week, at Post Office Square, 185 Franklin St.
Needham, I’ve really come to know I’ve been scouting out the Massachusetts area for years now. And, Paul (Rittenberg, a Needham resident), he was our chief development officer for a long time, and a friend of mine. COVID delayed our expansion there, but now it’s really getting ramped up. I’m well familiar with the Needham line. So I think a lot of Needham will get to know us potentially through our location in the Post Office Square area on Franklin Street by the time we open, which is probably going to be somewhere mid next year, maybe early next year, just depends a little bit on permitting.
But I love the Needham area for us, I think it’s clearly an upscale community that’s more dynamic than one might think — like, a lot of office, a lot of residential. And I think a need for healthy, fast, affordable dining. And I feel like there’s a connection to sustainability in that area that will resonate.
OBSERVER: Tell me a bit about the company’s efforts in that area.
KENNER: We have the largest restaurant reusables program in the United States. And we have a reusable bowl program where we sell reusable bowls for a dollar. And they’re branded Just Salad, and people call them the blue bowls. And every time a customer brings it back, they get a free topping like avocado. And so about 10 percent of all our in-store customers reuse their bowls.
And in addition, you won’t find plastic at Just Salad. We’ve really gone above and beyond to try and make sure that the single-waste packaging is as sustainable as possible. Wherever possible we compost, we recycle. We were the first chain in the United States to start carbon labeling. We’re the largest restaurant chain that’s B-Corp certified. And it’s been since Day 1 in 2006. I could go on forever about it.
OBSERVER: With the Needham project, is there anything unusual you’re expecting? Is it a fairly straightforward site, in terms of the buildout on the space?
KENNER: I don’t anticipate any issues because we’re not changing anything, structurally. And I think really I kind of fell in love personally, when Paul showed me this space. I fell in love with it, because I think we’re going to revamp it, we’re going to put a beautiful mural — which is an ode to Needham — on the outside. And we’ll have string lights on the patio. We’re going to have some pretty prominent signage and it’s a place where I really visualize a lot of families coming at night and weekends, and a lot of office workers, and work from home (workers) during lunch. It’s a little bit of an atypical site because it’s not where most of the food is, right? But I found that the traffic on the other side going to (Needham Street in Newton), that’s some of the most intense traffic I’ve ever experienced.
OBSERVER: Now when you say Just Salad, you’ve been around a long time now – is it still just salad?
KENNER: No. It started as just salad. And it definitely evolved over time. We added wraps about 15 years ago, about a year after we opened. We added soups about 12 years ago. We then added smoothies about eight years ago, we added avocado toast about four years ago. And we have a large warm-bowl selection as well. Really what I would say now is we’re really focused on Just Salad as a platform to do great food that’s healthy, fast and affordable.
Needham resident Daniel Barbarisi is a senior editor at The Athletic and a non-fiction author.