Matthew Corrin takes the fast fresh-food business by storm

Matthew Corrin is just 30, but he’s well on his way to achieving his goal: to be the Starbucks of the fresh food business.

“Just like Starbucks, I want to take a commodity – in my case, fresh food – and create an iconic consumer brand,” says the CEO of Freshii.

Freshii, if you’re not familiar with it, is a restaurant that offers custom salads, soups, wraps, burritos, yogurts and rice bowls. Its devotees include executives, office workers, students: pretty much anyone on the go who wants reasonably priced, healthy food. Freshii customers pay about $9 for a meal and the average customer returns three or four times a week.

Corrin had graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an arts degree and was working in New York City doing publicity for designer Oscar de la Renta when he had his “eureka” moment.

“Every day I went to this mom-and-pop deli around the corner from the office. I’d create my own meal that was healthy and fresh and it hit me one day that this idea of a neighbourhood restaurant where you could build your own food was unique to New York.”

That’s when Corrin decided to take this fresh food concept and brand it.

He put together a detailed business plan and borrowed $250,000 in start-up money from family and friends. He opened his first fast fresh-food restaurant in Toronto’s TD Centre on January 10, 2005. He called it Lettuce and it served custom salads.

Corrin had interned at a dot com and for the David Letterman Show, but he’d never worked a day in the restaurant business. Opening day, he ran out of food before lunch was over. The second day the same thing happened. “How can a restaurant called Lettuce have no lettuce?”

But Corrin was a quick learner and it wasn’t long before he was getting it right.

“It turned out to be a perfect storm,” he says. “We had a great concept, a great location and great timing, opening in the New Year when people had made their resolutions to lose weight and eat healthy.”

Every day for six months Lettuce broke a sales record – and every day the restaurant got better at what it did. And in the process, Corrin learned more about how to build a business.

Within two years he had used his profits to open nine Lettuce locations in Toronto, and he was ready to test a second market. He chose Chicago and in 2007 he moved there and opened his first restaurant, which was quickly followed by a second.

But by now the menu included much more than salads and the restaurants were open all day, breakfast through dinner. Corrin realized it was time to rebrand. It was a daunting prospect, but research turned up a number of successful companies that had rebranded well after they’d started to become successful.

Lettuce became Freshii.

“It was a better name because it better reflected what we had to offer.”

Corrin was on the move to expand further into the U.S. But in 2008, the economy tanked and traditional financing sources weren’t lending, even to successful enterprises like his.

But Matthew Corrin was a man on a mission and not easily deterred. He looked into franchising Freshii and he quickly found well capitalized partners, thanks, in part to the recession.

“Bright, capable people were being laid off with generous severance packages. They wanted to do something but they were leery of going back to work for someone else,” he says. “I was able to find high calibre partners who were philosophically, culturally and strategically aligned with the brand.” And that was essential in a business that relies on the success of each individual location.

Before long, Freshii had signed franchise deals with 20 partners in 20 cities from Chicago to Vienna to Dubai – all while still creating corporate locations.

Corrin, who eats at Freshii every day – “unless I’m somewhere there isn’t one” – believes in “launching fast, failing fast, iterating fast.”

It’s a strategy that’s clearly working for him.

Corrin recently opened his 54th location in Cincinnati and by the end of 2012 he aims to have as many as 90 Freshii restaurants in Canada, the U.S. and Europe –1,000 by 2015. At the rate he’s going, he’ll achieve it.

Corrin admits he hasn’t always gotten it right, but by picking good partners and concentrating on what’s not working, rather than what is, he’s confident Freshii is getting better all the time.

And Corrin’s advice to aspiring young entrepreneurs?

“If you’ve got an idea you believe in, just do it. Talk is cheap. Execution is what sets you apart.

“And learn from your mistakes.”