Q&A: Tropical Smoothie Cafe

By Jessica Maurer, posted Nov 25, 2020
Brandon Korman
The Greater Wilmington Business Journal spoke with Brandon Korman, owner of three area Tropical Smoothie Cafe locations, about weathering the pandemic and the brand's seasonal promotions. 

GWBJ: Now that the pandemic is in its eighth month, financially speaking, how much of an impact has COVID-19 had on your businesses?

Korman: "It has certainly been a major adjustment for us. When we first found out in March we immediately closed; we did a deep cleaning and an assessment of our processes right away. The most important thing to get a grip on was the safety and sanitation of our cafes (as it always is) and lead with that. So March through May saw an immediate sharp downturn, despite being open for carryout. We were off by large double digits. Luckily we had the support of our partnerships and outstanding teams and immediately relied on the tools we were putting into place pre-COVID such as app ordering and delivery via third parties. That led us to a little recovery from June through September, however October and November have continued to provide challenges and we will end the year down by double digits."

GWBJ: Your model lends itself well to carryout; is this the primary service model right now? Do you offer curbside service and/or delivery? 

Korman: "Right now we are probably a small subset of restaurants that haven’t opened the doors to the public for the entirety of COVID. So we have had to think how to be contactless and still provide the great service customers were used to. We immediately bought curbside signage and used walkie talkies and headsets to be able to control the flow and communication from the kitchen to the person bringing food directly to cars." 

"We’ve launched a new app that delivers awards and promotions and simplifies ordering. Next week we are upgrading the process and working with a company called Flybuy. It is a digital tool that will help make the curbside process seamless. Customers order and then get updates via the platform, while we, through GPS, are able to understand where they are and bring their food and smoothies out to them without them having to call in. We think it will be a real game-changer."

GWBJ: How has the Tropical Smoothie franchise responded to the crisis? What kind of support are they offering franchisees?

Korman: "They immediately sprang into action to help us business partners and promote community involvement. The company helped us in areas from sanitation, crisis management, human resources, lease negotiations, royalties and promotions. They even gave a break and had us not pay our usual royalty fees. The support center understood what we were experiencing and helped on many fronts. It was an experience in humanism that I was happy to be a part of."

"There was also a companywide initiative to give away 100,000 smoothies across all stores. We gave away well over 1,000 and the company did close to 300,000. It’s that pride through being community-minded that we hope resonates with Wilmington and Leland. Tropical Smoothie Cafe also gave $100,000 to the American Nurses Association, really proving that we care about frontline workers and the impact this is having on them."

GWBJ: What percentage of your pre-COVID staff has returned to work? 

Korman: "We were lucky enough that we didn’t have to fully close, so we did not have to let anyone go. In fact, from March through June we gave hourly increases as a way to say thank you for your hard work. We consider ourselves one big Tropical family and wanted to make good on our mantra of caring."

GWBJ: What types of safety measures have been implemented to protect your employees and customers?

Korman: "We work with a company called Auscura for everyday digital check-ins. We have deep cleaning and master cleaning lists on top of the stringent sanitation guidelines that were already in place. Masks and gloves are always mandatory and are frequently changed. Once the stores are open for customers to come in, we will have sanitation stations as well as reminders about distancing and sanitation."
GWBJ: What are TSC’s current seasonal promotions? 

Korman: "Seasonal smoothies include the Cranberry Crisp with cranberries, strawberries, pomegranate, cinnamon, whole-grain oats and nonfat vanilla yogurt, and the Cranberry Truffle with strawberries, cranberries, white chocolate and nonfat vanilla yogurt.

"We’re also featuring three grilled cheese sandwiches: the Smoky-Cado Grilled Cheese (shown above) with white American cheese, a firehouse cheese blend, smashed avocado, bacon, and smoked tomato spread on toasted sourdough; the Smoky Mozza Grilled Cheese with fresh mozzarella, white American cheese, bacon and smoked tomato spread on toasted sourdough; and a Classic Grilled Cheese with cheddar and white American cheese on toasted sourdough."

GWBJ: As an owner of a business with three locations locally, what are your priorities going into 2021?

Korman: "The focus for 2021 will be continued sanitation, continued ease of ordering/processes of getting our food and smoothies into homes. We’ll also be focused on growth and recovery. We think that 2021 will be a better year and there are still areas in town that would love to have us close." 

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