Smooth operator Featured

8:00pm EDT May 16, 2006
Robeks Fruit Smoothies & Healthy Eats has succeeded by capitalizing on the nutrition and wellness culture that has grown over the past 10 years.

But finding a niche isn’t the only thing that has allowed the chain to expand. Tony Gioia, Robeks’ president, CEO and vice chairman, has focused on growing the company by creating a culture that centers on satisfied customers and enables employees to be successful.

“We’re a culture that loves to serve our guests and exceed our guests’ expectations (by creating) a powerful, exciting and memorable retail experience through our products,” says Gioia. “Part of my job as the company’s leader is to articulate passionately and convincingly about who we are and what we stand for and our passion about serving great smoothies and juice-based products to our customers.”

The company is on target to hit 100 locations by next month and expects to reach 500 stores in the next five years. Total system sales have increased from $17 million in 2004 to $21 million in 2005, and are expected to reach $30 million this year.

Smart Business spoke with Gioia about his model for success and how he inspires passion among his employees.

How have you grown the company in such a crowded marketplace?
We think the whole retail premium juice category is poised for significant and long-term growth. So the awareness and the need is there. And I liken it very similar to the premium coffee category from 15, 20 years ago when Starbucks began to create the awareness.

We don’t have to pull away market share. Our strategy is to ride the wave of the growth phenomenon.

Our products and our retail format are very compelling. We have a pretty loyal customer base, so once a customer tries our products, they will tend to go to our stores three or four times a week because it becomes part of a lifestyle.

We develop our stores by selling franchises, so we use third-party capital and we’re able to attract very good operators who have the capital and the capacity and capability to grow with Robeks.

So that’s a pretty efficient model, when you have an industry that’s growing, and you have a product and retail offering that’s compelling, and you have a franchising model using third-party capital to enable growth. Those are the three critical areas to have high growth and fast growth.

How do you find employees committed to your culture?
We’ve been very fortunate in terms of our mission and our culture to attract that kind of (person) that likes that healthy lifestyle and likes to serve guests. And if you have those two combinations with an employee or an associate, it’s pretty powerful.

It first starts with finding the right operator in the store. When we find a franchisee, we do a lot of screening and testing to make sure that, to the best of our ability, that there’s a match between our concept, our values and our passion for guest relations. And then we give that person the training and the tools to hire the same kind of people and profile inside their store.

What I’ve learned in retail is it’s difficult to train one to have a passion for exceeding guests’ expectations. It’s very important to hire that kind of profile, that personality, that passion for smiling, for pleasing the guest. That has to be coming from the heart. And then our training and our system enable that personality trait.

Once we attract and retain that kind of personality and profile, then it’s our job to enable that to become robust in how they serve their guests every day in the stores.

How do you do that?
A very important part of our organizational leadership is to provide the environment and the culture and training systems that ... enable people to be the best they can be. When you do that right, employees really thrive because they feel empowered, they feel they’re making a difference and they feel that their leaders are supporting their needs to be successful in their job.

It’s an everyday process, and you always look for feedback from your associates. How are we helping you? What do you need from us to be successful? How can we enable you to be successful?

When you reach out in that way and you want to partner with your employees to enable success, it’s a very powerful thing. We are always aware and conscious of enabling their success.

What is your greatest growth challenge, and how are you managing it?
When you get to 100 [stores], and then 200 and 300 and ... you get to 5,000, 10,000 associates out there ... the biggest challenge is to have the same kind of culture that embraces great service and great products and embraces our brand. And you want to have the systems in place and the leadership in place to ensure that, as we get larger in size and scope, that we don’t lose that strong intimacy with our guests.

We do have a really good, talented training function and leadership body with Robeks to enable that. It’s an ongoing process, and leadership is part of being ahead of the curve to make sure they do all the right things today to be successful for tomorrow.

HOW TO REACH: Robeks Fruit Smoothies & Healthy Eats,