Mark Mears of Saladworks: “Fast, Friendly & Fresh”

Fast, Friendly & Fresh — A warm, friendly smile and cheerful, upbeat countenance is attractive and starts every guest experience off in a positive way. Demonstrating hustle without being pushy let’s the guest know we value their time and the decision they made to choose Saladworks over other competing alternatives. With over 60+ fresh, flavorful ingredients, our […]

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Fast, Friendly & Fresh — A warm, friendly smile and cheerful, upbeat countenance is attractive and starts every guest experience off in a positive way. Demonstrating hustle without being pushy let’s the guest know we value their time and the decision they made to choose Saladworks over other competing alternatives. With over 60+ fresh, flavorful ingredients, our guests can create a salad as original as they are.

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 Mark Mears, Chief Marketing Officer for Saladworks.

Mark Mears is a visionary business leader with a significant track record of building shareholder value by driving innovation and profitable growth among world-class, high profile brands. Mark possesses a unique and diverse background in building growth brands such as PepsiCo/Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Frito-Lay, JCPenney and NBC/Universal among others. Prior to joining Saladworks as Chief Marketing Officer last fall, Mark has also held executive leadership positions including SVP/Chief Marketing Officer for The Cheesecake Factory, EVP/Chief Marketing Officer for Noodles & Company and President/Chief Concept Officer for Mimi’s Cafe.

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?

After graduating from the University of Kansas in Journalism/Advertising, I went on to earn a Masters degree in what is now Integrated Marketing Communication from Northwestern University. In both cases, I had the good fortune to have some outstanding mentors who helped guide and shape my career path. At KU, it was Dr. Tim Bengtson who saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. Tim talked me out of going to Law School and into exploring a Marketing career instead — urging me to consider Northwestern.

Taking his sage advice led me to meet up with the legendary Prof. Don Schultz at Northwestern who is known as “The Father of Integrated Marketing Communications.” I had the good fortunate to literally learn at the feet of the master himself. In fact, the IMC principles he taught resonated with me so much, they became the very foundation of my marketing belief system. While starting out on the agency side, I realized I enjoyed building teams and brands (in that order) and — despite a brief span serving on the supplier side — I made the decision to continue building my career on the brand side. I believe these diverse experiences helped me to better understand the inner workings of how to optimally employ the disciplines of Integrated Marketing Communications to grow teams, brands, sales and profits effectively.

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

Ha! I’ve made so many mistakes not only just when I was starting out, but throughout my career there isn’t just one that stands out. If you really mean funniest, decorum would prohibit me from telling you; if you mean most embarrassing, then pride would not allow me to share it with you. Seriously, I believe in lifelong learning along with a spirit of continuous improvement, and that both personal and professional growth can come in many different forms. To be truly authentic with one’s self means to be open to hearing “the good, the bad and the ugly” from those whom you trust to have your best interests at heart. In all cases, a sense of humility is important to keep in mind as we are all very much works in progress — probably me more than anyone. That’s why they call them “growing pains,” right?

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?

This one’s easy! It is David Novak, the recently retired Chairman & CEO of Yum! Brands who originally recruited me to join him at Tracy-Locke — an ad agency in Dallas — after graduation from Northwestern. I turned him down to accept a role at another Dallas agency then called Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt. We kept in touch and played basketball together at the Premiere Club in Dallas. When he was named as the new senior vice president of marketing at Pizza Hut, he called to let me know he was building a team and wanted me to consider joining him. Hey, you don’t say “No” to David twice!

For those who have worked with David or read one of his many successful books, I can tell you first-hand he absolutely “walks the talk.” We happened to be on a late flight together from Chicago back to Wichita where Pizza Hut was originally headquartered. David and his wife, Wendy were returning from a PepsiCo meeting in Italy and were on their last leg home; whereas I had just finished up a few days of Focus Groups.

About twenty minutes into the flight while I was working on my notes to present to the executive team the next morning, I got a tap on the shoulder. It was David asking if he could sit down and talk. Of course, I said, “yes!” At this time, he pulled out a blank piece of paper and pencil and began writing. When he was finished, he looked at me and said, “Mark, you have a lot of talent and are a very hard worker. I’m so glad you are part of our team. Here are three things I think you do very well, and I want you to continue building on these strengths.” He then pointed to the other side of the paper and said, “Here are three things I would like you to work on that I believe will help make you a stronger, more effective leader.”

Under the circumstances, David could easily have stayed in the back of the plane with his wife getting some rest before having to hit the ground running back at work in the morning. Instead, he chose to invest his time to coach me into becoming a better, more well-rounded leader. This is a perfect example of why I am so passionate about the importance of mentoring — giving of one’s time, talents, treasures and triumphs/travails to help others along their respective growth journeys. If “time is money” then David is priceless!

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?

Of course, but let’s first start with the fact that I don’t like the word, “Customer” and I hate the word, “Consumer” even more! I believe that words matter — words lead to intentions, then actions and most importantly, feelings. At Saladworks, we serve “Guests.” If you think of the Golden Rule, the corollary for our industry is that you want to treat a Guest as if they were a guest in your own home — or how YOU would like to be treated as a guest in their home. But I actually believe in the Platinum Rule stating that we should treat a guest the way THEY want to be treated. This requires a greater sense of empathy and understanding to anticipate their needs, wants and desires even before they can articulate them.

THAT is how you create a Wow! guest experience — one that is personal and relational as opposed to impersonal and transactional. To be clear, we are not in the restaurant business — or even the hospitality business — we are most definitely in the PEOPLE business. I’ve always said that to be successful working in a restaurant, you must love people and food — in that order. This means you must exhibit a heart of hospitality. In fact, it was Phil Petrilli, our senior vice president of operations at Noodles & Company who said, “The act (art?) of hospitality — one human being serving another — is one of the most noble professions in the world.” Spot on, Phil!

All of us can conjure up examples of brands we admire or engage with who understand the importance of the “human touch” — funny how they tend to be the most successful. I don’t believe this is merely a coincidence.

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?

Yes, I do find it ironic that brands spend so much time, money and energy on the external components of building their brand to help achieve their respective sales and profit plans, and yet skimp on the internal components required to deliver a consistently high quality guest experience. And there are many brands who “talk” a good game, but don’t back it up with their actions. There is still another group who understands the value of connecting the dots between their purposeful Vision and Mission statements and the impact they have on the guest experience. Unfortunately, they choose to save money by either outsourcing this task overseas or using technology (or both) to save money when a guest requires a more personal, “human” experience. Epic fail!

Knowing that it is 6–8 times easier to keep a guest (depending upon whose data you believe) than it is to acquire a new guest, this philosophy is both short-sighted and counterintuitive. It can create a “leaky bucket” effect with disenfranchised guests going away, and the majority of the time they don’t say “good-bye” on their way out the door. Because the overall concept of guest experience recovery is botched so often by many brands, I have found it is easy to turn a negative situation into a Wow! experience based upon the appropriate recovery techniques revolving around good ‘ol fashioned human concern and dignity.

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?

Absolutely! When you look at the value proposition of any guest-facing business, the experience they provide is as important — if not more so — than the price, quality and convenience they are selling. Today more than ever, guests have many different options to obtain a high quality, nutritionally balanced meal whenever and wherever they want. There is only so much share of stomach to go around as we’ve seen from the precipitous traffic declines across all restaurant segments over the last few years.

Unfortunately, this situation will only intensify based upon the impact of COVID-19 as restaurants compete to “earn” their fair share of business as restaurants begin the process of reopening. I believe guests will remember how they were treated both before and during this pandemic and fold those images into their “mind vault” when thinking about how to invest their discretionary income toward dining away at home.

I also believe guests will remember how you treated others during this time and add it to their mental image of your brand — placing it in their evoked set of choices on either the positive or negative side of the ledger. In fact, when many of our restaurants were delivering meals to local hospitals or healthcare facilities pro bono, several of our guests asked if there was any way they could chip in to help. This is how our “Fives for Lives” fundraising program got started where every 5 dollars contribution received equated to a fresh, flavorful and nutritious meal being given to a local hero working on the front line of this pandemic (

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

There are several “Wow!” stories too numerous to count, but one that comes quickly to mind is very simple, yet poignant coming from a guest of our Saladworks in Cherry Hill, NJ.

“I placed and order for a Greek Salad for delivery and there were missing condiments on the salad. I am 5 months pregnant and when a craving hits you it hits you!! Meaning you want what you want when you want it. So I called the Saladworks location where my order was placed and spoke with one of the employees just to notify them of the situation. They could have blown me off or even given me a store credit for the missing toppings, but they insisted on bringing me a new salad, and that they did. It was here to me within 7 minutes and they placed a note in the bag apologizing for the inconvenience along with several cookies. The courtesy, professional and excellent customer service that was given me was exceptional!!! I will be a lifelong patron, and I just wanted that team to be commended and recognized for their outstanding effort!!!! Awesome team …just awesome!!!!”

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

Yes, it most certainly did! In fact, it served as not only an uplifting “Wow!” story for that restaurant team, but as the inspiration for our new multi-facted Vow to “WOW!” guest hospitality program we are rolling out system-wide this summer. The foundation of this program is an integrated series of operational standards and practices, performance metrics and certification processes based upon the acronym V.O.W.S., which stands for Vital Operations Work-flow Success.

By standardizing our approach to creating “WOW!” Moments for our guests, we can weave this guest hospitality (vs. service) mindset into our team members’ DNA as part of our hiring and training process; resulting in a culture where guest hospitality is our highest priority. We are adding a Recognition & Rewards program to highlight positive behaviors while leveraging the “best of the best” examples to serve as our internal best practices. By doing so, we will indeed create a ripple effect that will enhance our value proposition and allow Saladworks to stand apart from our competition.

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.

At Saladworks, one of the first things that struck me when I toured restaurants upon taking the role as chief marketing officer last fall was much more than the endless combinations of fresh, flavorful ingredients and customizability options on the menu — it was the people. While the guest experience was already exceptional, we as an executive team felt it could become a real advantage for our brand within the rapidly growing and increasingly competitive fast casual segment. Under the leadership of our CEO, Kelly Roddy, we developed a new purposeful mission statement to ensure 100% alignment across the organization:

“We strive to BE Original in everything we do, so we can create “WOW!” Moments everywhere Saladworks is enjoyed.”

As you can see, this is not merely an Operations and Training initiative, but an enterprise-wide commitment that spans every function. Over the last few years, our business model has evolved from Dine-in and Takeaway only to now include Online Ordering, Delivery, Third Party Delivery and Catering in our traditional locations as well as several non-traditional platforms including airports, malls, colleges, grocery stores and many others, our goal is to employ the following principles across every guest touchpoint.

While this is certainly more difficult within a digital ordering environment, our Training and Operations team has developed a solid foundation for ensuring “WOW!” Moments are created within the restaurant environment. As a central part of our Vow to “WOW!” program, we want to get “FRESH” with our guests — an acronym which stands for:

  • Fast, Friendly & Fresh — A warm, friendly smile and cheerful, upbeat countenance is attractive and starts every guest experience off in a positive way. Demonstrating hustle without being pushy let’s the guest know we value their time and the decision they made to choose Saladworks over other competing alternatives. With over 60+ fresh, flavorful ingredients, our guests can create a salad as original as they are.
  • Respect — Engaging the guest on a personal level — asking their name and using it throughout their experience — is such a powerful way to show respect. Some of you may remember the old theme song to the hit TV show, Cheers — “You want to go where everyone knows your name.” There is indeed great power in a person’s name and at Saladworks, we recommend our team members introduce themselves first to help break the ice.
  • Engage & Entice — Our team members are well-trained on the Saladworks menu; offering relevant opportunities to up-serve a guest to complete their order; ensuring it is truly a “Wow!” guest experience. I like the term, “up-serve” as opposed to “up-sell” as our goal is to help our guests enjoy more of what they love about Saladworks. By educating them on some possibilities to enhance their meal and relating a personal favorite makes this process relational instead of merely transactional.
  • Safe — Our motto is very clear and simple: “If you see something, say something.” Running a clean and safe restaurant is merely the entry fee to be successful in foodservice. Again, it’s about people — in every restaurant every single day, we imagine we are serving our very own families.
  • Hospitality — We do our best to anticipate and fulfill the needs, wants and desires of our guests, but of course, nobody’s perfect (at least not all the time!). So, when a guest complaint may arise, we must handle the situation with empathy and care. Much like a weld can make a broken piece of metal stronger than it was before, I believe this is very analogous to a ‘broken’ guest experience. It’s not what happened that matters most to the guest, it’s how their issue is handled. They want to feel heard, understood and empathized — with the expectation their issue will be handled promptly, professionally and courteously. When that happens, they will be loyal for life!

Given our “bullseye” target audience is Millennials with a presence of kids, we know the concept of originality is very compelling and motivating to them. But not just our guests, the majority of our restaurant-level team members also fall within this demographic and psychographic category. So, we invite our team members to BE Original — to be their authentic selves and let their personalities shine through — which makes them unique and special as opposed to robotic automatons.

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?

Yes, I am a big believer in positive reinforcement and the power of recognition and rewarding desired behaviors in our team members and our guests. Again, not only in ways that impact one team member or all team members within a restaurant or even across the Saladworks system via our internal communications. Through our social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), we can amplify individual guest experiences like the one I shared with you previously, so that other Saladworks guests see that and feel comfortable sharing their positive experiences as well.

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. 🙂

Well, I’m very glad you asked as I just happen to be writing a book tentatively titled, “The Purposeful Growth Revolution” which uses a leaf as a metaphor for growth. Just as important, LEAF is also an acronym which stands for Leadership, Engagement, Accountability and Fulfillment — 4 ‘revolutionary’ processes (picture a 4-circle Venn diagram) that are interwoven together and centered around a unique and powerful purpose regardless of what season of life one may be experiencing.

My personal brand mission statement is, “I don’t want to just make money and retire; I want to make a difference and inspire.” Essentially, I plan to curate my personal experiences as an executive working for or with some highly respected brands (e.g., PepsiCo/Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Frito-Lay, NBC/Universal, JCPenney, The Cheesecake Factory), observations of those whom I admire as well as learning from subject matter experts to help others along their growth journey. In addition to making a difference in the lives of others, I hope to inspire them to do likewise in ways that create a virtuous cycle of reciprocity to help make the world a better place.

To complete the LEAF metaphor, all organisms are put on this earth to reproduce. Those who produce the most fruit have an opportunity to scatter the most seeds — giving of their time, talents, treasures and triumphs/travails to invest in others; helping them along their growth journey… and the cycle continues.

Stay tuned for more details as this project develops…

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can reach out to me via Twitter at @MarkMears10 as well as on LinkedIn — in fact, I have written an article attached to my profile that is very relevant to this topic titled, “Why I Hate Customers . . . and Consumers Even More!”

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

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