Paul Steck of Saladworks

Saladworks president and CEO Paul Steck in the Mount Laurel location.

These days, chief executive Paul Steck, 53, is a happy guy, developing a new tahini salad dressing and bubbling over the future of Saladworks L.L.C., the franchise restaurant company that began in Cherry Hill in 1986.

But a year ago, Steck, then Saladworks president, was miserable, ducking under his desk, figuratively speaking, as John Scardapane, the founder and then CEO, feuded with Saladworks' major investor, Commerce Bank founder Vernon Hill.

"The mental image I'll give you is two big, majestic bull elks and they're sparring with their horns and their horns lock," Steck said.

In February, the feud led the company into bankruptcy. A New York investment fund bought it, shedding Scardapane and Hill, and promoting Steck to CEO in July.

What was it like to work in that atmosphere?

They couldn't agree on what day of the week it was. They're still fighting to this day.

Really? Post-bankruptcy?

The fight goes on. I'm a little voyeuristic in the sense that I don't care. It's none of my business what they're fighting over now. My passion is for Saladworks, these employees, my franchisees.

How did you manage?

I was told to, essentially, do nothing. Don't rock the boat. Don't spend any money. Don't make any changes. I sat here and did nothing, other than plan for what was to come.

So what's to come?

By December, we will have a new restaurant design.

What will that look like?

We're selling a product that's of the earth. The restaurant architecture needs to feel more natural. You're going to see us softening the look of our store. We're bringing in brick, wood, some earth tones, creating a restaurant look and feel that is more representative of the product that we're selling.

And the menu?

It was stale. Farm-to-table is an easy buzz word right now. Ten years ago, no one ate kale. It was, at best, a decoration. I would say kale was red hot two years ago. Now we're on the backside of that. Do you know we didn't have kale in restaurants?

Saladworks has some tough competitors.

We're the oldest, the largest. We should be the leader in menu development, not sitting there on our hands doing nothing. That's what happened. I think now we have to catch up and then push forward. We have allowed, due to ineffective ownership, the likes of Honeygrow, Sweetgreen.

Do you do menu development yourself?

I love it. We've sold a couple of franchises in the Middle East, so I'm playing the next seasonal salad in my head. I wanted to come up with a dressing that reminded me of some of the flavors I tasted in the Middle East and hummus is one of those. So I made tahini vinaigrette.

How was it?

I had two perspective franchise owners in here. They loved it. My staff was 50-50. I still have some work to do.

Do you cook at home?

My wife, Gretchen, is a great lady, but she struggles to boil water. So I do the cooking. I love it.

What about paying fast food workers $15 an hour?

Take the minimum wage. Let's round up, $8 times 35 hours a week, less taxes, less rent. Do you know how much money is left? I challenge you or any of your readers to live on that. So I expect minimum wage to go up, but to expect prices for the product not to go up is ludicrous.

At age 21, you bought a Burger King franchise.

My father was a Burger King franchisee. I went to work for him when I was 12, sweeping parking lots. When I was allowed to be the french fry guy, I thought I was hot stuff.

Then, what?

A Burger King was going to be closed in rural Ohio - low sales volume. So the price was next to nothing.

But if sales were low, why did you buy it?

Before I buy it, I look at it. There's a McDonald's across the street and the McDonald's was incredibly successful. You're in a small town and you want a hamburger. Do you go to the lousy, terribly run Burger King, or do you go to the nice McDonald's? There's no reason why that Burger King couldn't have been more successful, other than it was being run poorly. In a couple of years, I doubled the sales.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.

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Saladworks

Where: Conshohocken.

Owners: Privately held franchise operation, Centre Lane Partners L.L.C., a New York investment firm.

History: Former CEO John Scardapane started business in Cherry Hill in 1986.

Revenues: $80 million combined restaurants, $7 million for the company.

Restaurants: 103.

Employees: 20 corporate, 1,500 in restaurants.

Paul Stek

Title: Chief executive since June, president.

Home: Havertown.

Family: Wife, Gretchen; children, Katie, 22, Kara, 19, Drew, 18.

Diploma: Lawrence University, economics.

Bad habit that doesn't bother him: Biting his nails. "Everybody has flaws."

Weekend fun: Go to two or three farmers' markets and grocery stores on a Sunday afternoon and then cook the rest of the day.

Hot wheels: Roller blades.

Current menu favorite: Turkey Club salad - lettuce, radiatore pasta, roasted turkey, bacon, tomatoes, balsamic vinaigrette.

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jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769

@JaneVonBergen

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