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‘A little bit of hell:’ How the Saladworks brand is bouncing back after bankruptcy

By Alyssa Hurst

In “Where Are They Now?”, SmartCEO takes another look at companies and CEOs previously featured on our magazine cover. Saladworks’ cover story appeared in the June 2011 issue. Read it here. If your company was featured on our cover and you’re interested in having us revisit your story, email ahurst@smartceo.com.

Paul Steck

Paul Steck, President and CEO of Saladworks

In 2011, Saladworks founder and then-CEO John Scardapane told SmartCEO that Saladworks had reached a tipping point. And tip it did. It tipped so far, in fact, that Scardapane isn’t even associated with the company anymore.

So what happened? What sent a company poised to hit 500 franchises worldwide by 2015 straight into the arms of chapter 11 bankruptcy? The answer is an interesting one, but not as exciting as what Saladworks’ current president and CEO, Paul Steck, has in store for the brand.

The February 2015 bankruptcy filing was the result of a dispute between the company’s founder and former CEO Scardapane and Saladworks’ minority partner, Vernon W. Hill of Commerce Bank fame. “Those two had a falling out, and candidly, couldn’t agree on what day of the week it was,” says Steck.

The natural resolution was to sell the company. However, as Steck points out, the two couldn’t come to a decision on the details of the sale. He explains, “We filed a chapter 11 bankruptcy filing not at all because we couldn’t pay our bills. It was because it would allow the court process … to effectuate the sale that needed to occur.”

While chaos erupted behind the scenes, then-president Steck was focused on saving the brand he viewed as his own. He worked to keep employees in place, all while fighting the growing pressure to consider walking away himself. “I’ve built this up on behalf of others, but it’s mine. To see damage being done to it was very painful personally and professionally,” he says.

In the end, Saladworks was sold to Centre Lane Partners, a New York-based private equity firm, for nearly $17 million. Its $2 million debt was paid, and Steck ascended to the role of president and CEO. This move has proven to be crucial to the company’s rebuilding process. “Saladworks can once again move forward. The restaurant industry is famous for ‘innovate or die,’ and there are competitors out there,” Steck says.

Once Centre Lane stepped in, the train found its way back to the rails and the company immediately regained its traction. Having served as a franchisee sounding board for years, Steck was intimately acquainted with the issues surrounding Saladworks, and the private equity firm was eager to help. “It’s essentially that the ship was listing to port. All you have to do is plug the hole, bail out the water and get going again. It just wasn’t that hard because it was a great brand,” he says.

Instead of focusing on retaining team members, surviving a storm and working with what Steck describes as ineffective leadership, Saladworks has a new mission. “There is a foot race going on for who can be the dominant national player,” says Steck.

Saladworks

One of the first things Saladworks did coming out of bankruptcy was to add new, seasonal menu items.

Right now, salads are a regional game. It seems as though every major city has its own incarnation of the Saladworks concept, but according to Steck, his company has a head start. “We’ve forgotten things that most of our competitors haven’t realized they need to know,” he says. “I mean, we’ve been in business for 29 years. We have a great set of franchisees and great employees here. There’s no reason we can’t grow to be the dominant national player, and that’s what needs to happen.”

Steck’s master plan involves a complete revamp, and hinges on seasonal offerings, new technology and Brussels sprouts. Indeed, the bite-sized cruciferous vegetables represent Saladworks’ new trajectory in many ways. They’re simple, they’re delicious, and with the right touch, they just may be the next big thing.

The company made a statement in the immediate aftermath of its sale with brand-new menu innovations. It rolled out a seasonal salad, and plans to continue that trend with each new season. This month, you can enjoy the company’s autumn farmhouse salad, complete with Brussels sprouts.

And sometime in the near future, you may be able to order and pay for that salad from your smart phone through what Steck describes as “customer-facing technology.” He goes on to say, “You bypass the line, you bypass the cashier, you wait patiently at the far end of the counter and they call out your name. How cool is that? That’s the sort of thing that we need to be the front-runner on.”

Though there are many changes headed down the pipeline for Saladworks, Steck is operating under a self-imposed deadline of early December. He plans on making sure the company is “leaner and meaner,” with a new logo, new store design and new menu items. “We’re essentially rebirthing the brand,” he says.

In the meantime, Steck is really enjoying his new gig, busy as it may be. “Remember that old vaudeville act where a guy takes a plate and puts it on top of a stick and spins it? Then he does it with his left hand and then he’s got one between his toes? That’ s kind of how I view my job,” he says. “I think the common vision is the hard-charging CEO that’s smoking a cigar and screaming at people, and the reality is, you’re a support person.”

Today’s Saladworks is nothing like the Saladworks we talked to in 2011. Lofty goals set by its former CEO were not achieved, and through no fault of its own, the company spent two years spinning its wheels. There is plenty of work to be done, but with its ever-dedicated servant, Paul Steck, behind the wheel, Saladworks is on the right path. “I’m passionate about the brand. I’ve got great customers. Today we are going to serve thousands of salads all around the country, and that’s what got me through two years of, candidly, a little bit of hell,” he says.