Kelly Parthen and Shannon Seip: “Go to the heart of the problem”

Create a culture centered around your core values: Everyone on our team knows our HIPP core values inside and out: Health, Innovation, Positivity, and Playfulness. Everyone is counted upon to uphold those values and identify where we’re falling short, whether it’s behind the scenes or customer-facing, and offer solutions. When we had a challenge with […]

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Create a culture centered around your core values: Everyone on our team knows our HIPP core values inside and out: Health, Innovation, Positivity, and Playfulness. Everyone is counted upon to uphold those values and identify where we’re falling short, whether it’s behind the scenes or customer-facing, and offer solutions. When we had a challenge with a grumpy vendor who was delivering bread, muttering swear words, our Bean Teamers told us immediately that this company was not HIPP and it was not only starting their day off on the wrong foot but damaging to any customers who would come in contact with him. So, we worked to bring in a vendor who was more in line with our HIPP core values.

As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly “Pea Brain” Parthen and Shannon “Peacasso” Seip, co-founders of Bean Sprouts.

Kelly “Pea Brain” Parthen and Shannon “Peacasso” Seip are the co-founders of Bean Sprouts, a hip and healthy café chain that serves family destinations, such as zoos, amusement parks, children’s museums, and science centers.

With a company philosoPEA of “sparking kids’ appetites for yummy, good-for-you food and delighting grown-ups with a happier mealtime,” Bean Sprouts has repeatedly been named a restaurant industry “Top 100 Mover & Shaker” for its engaging and experiential concept that empowers kids to make healthy choices.

Kelly and Shannon have shared their playful and innovative approach with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! team at the White House and with many major media outlets including Good Morning America, Parents Magazine, and Forbes. Their newest cookbook, Bean Sprouts Kitchen, was recently named one of Amazon’s best books (non-fiction for kids).

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

When each of us had young children, we realized there was no place to eat that was healthy AND fun, that appealed to both kids AND adults.

We knew firsthand the challenges parents face when eating out with children and wanted to create an anxiety-free, guilt-free dining experience, where parents didn’t feel like they always had to say no. We created Bean Sprouts — a hip and healthy café that appeals to both kids and adults. Our “PhilosoPEA” (mission statement) is “to spark children’s appetites with yummy, good-for-you food; and delight grown-ups with a happier mealtime!”

We quickly found our niche inside of family destinations (children’s museums, science centers, zoos, etc.) where there is a huge need for more wholesome food options.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

When we first started Bean Sprouts, we were determined to know every aspect of our business and let our teams know we were willing to get our hands dirty. The opening day of our very first location landed on a hot and humid Midwestern day. Our air conditioner went out and we had a large crowd, including several media outlets.

One Bean Teamer told me (Shannon) that our ice machine broke and asked if I could fix it. Of course, I had no idea how to fix an ice machine but wanted to show the team I was willing to do anything. I pulled out the cooler and crawled under our counter to look at the ice machine.

Our team didn’t see me down there and pushed back all of the machinery, trapping me under the counter with only a sliver of light. I didn’t want to yell and cause alarm but knew I had media interviews waiting to happen.

After channeling the Incredible Hulk and pushing myself and all of the machinery out, I managed to do some of the sweatiest interviews I’ve ever done. And I ended up running to the store to buy bags of ice.

We believe showing your team you’re willing to your hands dirty and also demonstrate how to be solution-oriented under pressure offers credibility and an example of how to navigate obstacles.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

When we were developing the Bean Sprouts concept, we knew the kid-focused and family-friendly brand and customer experience we wanted to create. However, neither of us had the culinary expertise to create a menu from scratch.

We asked our designer if she knew anybody who could help answer our questions. She recommended her friend, Gale Gand. At the time, we had no idea who Gale was.

Right before our call with Gale, we learned that she is a renowned chef with a show on The Food Network. And Oprah’s favorite pastry chef! Much higher credentials than we needed for some basic questions. But we jumped at the opportunity to share our concept and ask her questions about how to go about hiring someone to create a menu for Bean Sprouts.

Gale had small children and our wholesome kid-focus concept resonated with her. She shared that she usually charged companies tens of thousands of dollars for her to create a menu. But she was so excited about Bean Sprouts that she said she would create our menu FOR FREE!

Our menu has changed dramatically since that very first iteration, and Gale’s menu items aren’t on the menu any longer. However, having Gale’s involvement from day one gave our business immediate credibility and us as co-founders confidence that we had a strong concept.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

When you understand the problems your customers face and work to create solutions, you are letting customers know you empathize and are here to help. Especially when it comes to dining out with kids — nobody ever thinks that is something that is usually easy, or even enjoyable.

With our Bean Sprouts concept, we want grown-ups to know we understand the challenges of dining out with kids. We’re here not just help them get through the meal, but to actually spark delight and fun. Bean Sprouts’ concept allows kids to have an engaging, empowering, and imaginative dining experience. An experience where everyone wins — children and grown-ups. That is what keeps our customers coming back.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

We find that our Bean Sprouts customer experience shines the brightest when we truly filter everything through our HIPP core values — Health, Innovation, Positivity, and Playfulness. That includes the questions we ask on our job applications and the dishes we create, to the vendorswe work with and how we interact with customers. (By the way, that job application question is “If you were to name a pet after a fruit or veggie, what would you name it?”)

Every Bean Teamer knows our HIPP core values. Employee Beanefits (or perks) are centered around them. Mystery shoppers provide feedback on them. Leaders are bonused on them. Our HIPP values are part of our everyday conversations.

It seems that some companies don’t infuse their values into the core of their businesses, and so they don’t mean anything to the team members. And if the values aren’t alive in the team, the customers surely will miss out on an amazing experience.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

We are amazed that more restaurants don’t pay more attention to kids’ menus. Our Imaginibbles kids’ menu is what stands Bean Sprouts apart from the crowd. With many kids’ menus, you see the same boring options: chicken tenders, hamburgers, hot dogs, mac and cheese, etc. — usually as an afterthought in a small section on the back of the menu.

We wanted to think outside the lunchbox and create whimsical and imaginative dishes packed with healthy ingredients. We wanted menu items so visually appealing they spark delight and make you chuckle. We even have lower Imaginibbles kids’ counters that display our menu to empower youngsters to make their own good-for-you choices. The lower counter also allows our Bean Teamers to see the youngsters’ faces and engage, not just look at the tops of their heads.

Bean Sprouts is embracing our position as the industry leader in making healthy food fun, but for the sake of all, it would be great for more restaurants to join our mission.

Allergies and special dietary needs are also on the rise, especially for kids. We made the move several years ago to make our kitchens nut-free (a rarity in the restaurant world) and to accommodate nearly every dietary need. The changes we made are not a sacrifice for mainstream eaters and a hugely appreciated move for those with allergies. Bean Sprouts is so dedicated to the cause, we even have one of the nation’s only certified master allergy trainers on our team.

It’s great to see how those external pressures have increasingly created safer places for those with allergies to eat out.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

Bean Sprouts constantly gets grown-ups who are baffled that the kids ate their whole lunch when they usually won’t touch a vegetable. The parents always say it’s because we’ve created a complete kid-friendly experience — from an engaging experience at our lower Imaginibbles kids’ counter to whimsically styled dishes. The kids are so much more likely to try something new, which in turn, makes for a happier mealtime for grown-ups.

Parents also say it’s such a relief to not have to constantly say “no” to their kids. That’s because we didn’t design a “healthy” section surrounded by icky food. Sure, we have yummy treats and snacks, but they’re all within our clean eating guidelines — down to the naturally-colored sprinkle on our cake pops.

For our host partner customers, they are often very excited — yet hesitant — to make the leap to clean food and beverage offerings. Usually, when we remove the soda fountain, there is some anxiety. But that is quickly replaced with customers’ delight at the other offerings we have, including more natural carbonated beverages. It’s as if that soda fountain never existed.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

When our customers are delighted, they share with our host partner. The family destination industry is close-knit. Bean Sprouts’ dynamic growth is largely boosted by referrals and word-of-mouth.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Provide the unexpected! From the moment you see Bean Sprouts and our lower Imaginibbles kids’ counter, you realize this isn’t your typical restaurant. Everything we do is to provide a positive, engaging, and delicious experience with wholesome food. When we hand a child our Crocomole for example, the whole family is thrilled that they could get healthy food made to order, in the most delightful presentation. We get notes all the time from parents who thank us, saying they can’t believe their kids gobbled down their meal.

2. Create a culture centered around your core values: Everyone on our team knows our HIPP core values inside and out: Health, Innovation, Positivity, and Playfulness. Everyone is counted upon to uphold those values and identify where we’re falling short, whether it’s behind the scenes or customer-facing, and offer solutions. When we had a challenge with a grumpy vendor who was delivering bread, muttering swear words, our Bean Teamers told us immediately that this company was not HIPP and it was not only starting their day off on the wrong foot but damaging to any customers who would come in contact with him. So, we worked to bring in a vendor who was more in line with our HIPP core values.

3. Go to the heart of the problem: When most people think of a fun day out with the kids at the zoo or a children’s museum, they often think of an amazing and engaging experience, followed by a disappointing food experience that’s often nachos, corn dogs, and cotton candy.

What we’ve discovered is that a huge number of family destinations are feeling pressure to provide better food options, but that no company has a strong focus on kids.

When we realized Bean Sprouts could provide a solution, we ended up changing our business model to only serve these family destinations.

We did give up some control over planting cafés wherever we chose, but we recognize that there is a huge demand for the Bean Sprouts in the family destination industry. And the enthusiasm from our destination partners and visitors is overwhelming.

4. Be willing to evolve: We’ve developed several ideas that seemed amazing in our heads and in our initial rollouts. For example, when we opened inside our first children’s museum, we built a “Bean There, Ate That” gong that kids would hit when they tried a new taste. We thought it was a fun way to positively reinforce children trying something new.

However, adults started complaining about the clanky sound, and prospective family destinations with an older demographic said there was no way that would fly with their audiences. So, the gong got the boot. And we find other ways to delight our customers.

5. Hire spies: We use a mystery shopper program and pay over-the-top attention to every element of our Bean Team Experience. Those are the branded moments we want every Bean Sprouts customer to experience. The mystery shopper scores factor into our Bean Leaders’ (store managers’) bonuses, even helping boost their bonus when the numbers are outstanding.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

Like so many other companies, the biggest thing for us is referrals. When our customers are happy, our family destination partner is happy.

What we bring to our partner, from the award-winning kid-focused menu to engaging Bean Sprouts experience, is unparalleled to what other options are available in the marketplace.

And because this industry is so tight-knit, their referrals to potential new museums or science centers etc. is crucial for us to grow our business.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As one of only a few exclusively female-founded restaurant chains in the U.S., we want to elevate women and minorities into more leadership positions, especially in the foodservice industry! We are proud that over 75% of our café leadership is made up of women and minorities.

How can our readers follow you on social media? Visit our Facebook page (Bean Sprouts Café)

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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