With a degree as an architectural engineer and a background managing design/build projects including large prisons and universities, working in quick-service restaurants was nowhere near what Bret Cunningham expected from his life.
It was an opportunity to work with Starbucks Coffee around the turn of the century and a subsequent decision to relocate closer to his family that led him to Smoothie King in 2008.
“I was very familiar with the brand,” Cunningham says. “I loved the product and really thought the brand had the capacity to expand much faster and further than it had. So coming into the position, one of my big focuses was to ramp up their ability to expand.”
As vice president of design and construction, Cunningham has been instrumental in helping Smoothie King with its recent rebranding, which included not only a new store design which utilizes more natural colors, but also an entirely new logo intended to be more approachable by a larger variety of guests.
About four years ago, Smoothie King was purchased by SK USA Inc., and the new owner sat down with Cunningham to discuss the direction of the brand’s image. Telling Cunningham there were “no golden cows here,” the new owner said there was nothing that couldn’t be changed but the company needed to know which operations should be changed, as many were outdated. Still, one person’s “outdated” could be another person’s “nostalgia,” so he wanted to be able to support any change with valid guest research.
Cunningham worked with Columbus, Ohio-based WD Partners to do quantitative and qualitative research on Smoothie King and determine where the company both did well and missed the mark.
“I toured a team from WD Partners through our stores in Korea and the United States to gain a full understanding of the history of the over 40-year-old brand,” he says. “I then worked with them to compile a 45-minute survey, which we distributed to and evaluated responses from over 2,000 people in the US, 2,000 people in Korea, and 2,000 people in China in order to get impressions of the company and the smoothie industry.”
This was followed by a series of focus groups in multiple cities, comprised of guests and non-guests of Smoothie King, where they were presented multiple logos and were asked what they thought through a series of questions.
“We listened to everyone’s reactions and learned, overwhelmingly, that our current logo was viewed as dated and—although not necessarily offensive to men—tended to be too masculine to women,” Cunningham says. “The lettering was too sharp. The crown in the logo was unrecognizable. The colors no longer represented healthy. They were garish and reminiscent of an old QSR restaurant or a gas station.”
In designing a new logo, one of the big challenges Smoothie King faced was the color scheme. What’s often found in the retail world is that shopping centers have designated colors. There are signage restrictions so companies can’t necessarily get the exact colors on the exterior signage needed to make the outline distinguishable. As a result, Cunningham says the company designed a new logo that could accommodate different colors and overlay textures over time.
Once the new logo was established, the company began making corrections to the store, taking down the bright, more garish colors that represent sugary, sweet kinds of dessert and softened them. It also added more natural woods and solid surface counters. The idea was to project an image that would represent something healthier than the products associated with plastic laminates and reflective man-made surfaces.
“Even the floors were a chocolate brown,” Cunningham says. “If you look closely, they look like crinkled leather. We tried to make each piece of the store align to the responses we received through our research. We still had to bring in some color and we’ve done that through graphics versus doing it through a permanent item in the store. . . . As those graphics change over the next 10 years as trends towards different colors and presentation changes, we can accommodate that a lot easier than we could before.”
That’s the kind of streamlining that Cunningham staked his name on in eight years with Smoothie King. In addition to various design work, he’s organized the store life cycle, from design to construction, resulting in substantial savings from previous years.
“We’ve got quite detailed instructions for the franchisee and they’re given the program when they come on board,” he says. “We send out a set of reminders during each milestone as to what the next steps are. We even give them example schedules for their contractors. We give them photographs of what the store should look like week by week, so when they’re under construction they can bring those photographs out and they can tell if their contractor is ahead of schedule or behind schedule.”
Perhaps even more remarkable is the company’s ability to provide such a solid template given the vast difference in store sizes in their various locations.
“We have an arsenal in our design department, which allows us to add community tables, more seating, or we also can restrict it to a small footprint such as a freestanding kiosk,” Cunningham says.
Several Smoothie King locations, such as one in New Jersey and one in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, have the unique distinction of operating inside former banks with exposed vaults. In the center of the latter is a beautiful vault with a picturesque stainless door.
“Instead of trying to demo the vault or simply use it as a storeroom, we’re going to keep that door—obviously fix the door open so it doesn’t close—and we’re going to put a little community table with some chairs in there so people can get together, relax, or hold meetings,” he says. “It’s fun when you find an interesting element within a building that really should stay and be accentuated instead of being hidden through a standardized remodeling process.”