Saladworks CEO: 'Captain Romaine' tells how it's done

Patrick Sugrue, 57, chief executive of Saladworks, gets ready to eat a salad at a restaurant in Southampton. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

When it comes to the food business, Patrick Sugrue, 57, chief executive of the franchise salad restaurant business Saladworks has just about run the table. Over his career, he has worked at the E. & J. Gallo Winery, Coca-Cola Co., and HoneyBaked Ham, and has led Fearmans Pork Inc. and Sofina Foods Inc., both in the meat business.

And now you’re in salads.

One of my buddies calls me “Captain Romaine.” I don’t think I’ve ever felt I was more aligned with where consumers are going than I do right now. You used to see the vegans as a marginal group, 2 percent of the population. When you go to millennials, 77 million millennials, if you take vegan, vegetarian, and what’s called pescatarian, which is basically eating seafood and plants, it’s 22 percent of the population. It’s gone from being a marginal group to a huge group.

Saladworks, founded in Cherry Hill, has been around for 30 years. What’s happening with the brand?

Its real time is now. Thirty years ago, it was novel. Now, it can be mainstream. My entire career has been focused on marketing and selling to baby boomers. If you found a way to be relevant to baby boomers, you were going to do well. As my chief marketing officer is fond of telling me, hundreds of thousands of baby boomers die every year. The next generation, the millennials, are coming right behind, and they’re bigger. They know food better. As well as they know food, they don’t cook. And the other titanic shift has been the use of technology in the food business: We choose our restaurants off our phones with Yelp. We order off of our phones. So I think that consumer shift, the technology change, and this move to healthy eating are three dynamic trends that I was excited about [that] are converging.

Did you take heat for being in the meat processing business?

There are a number of people who don’t believe that mankind should consume animals. It’s a point of view. I respect it. It’s not mine. The business I was in, which was processing animals into meat, was in the crosshairs of their beliefs. So, part of the way they would make their beliefs known is they would protest outside of packing plants, of which I ran one of the largest in Canada: 375,000 square feet.

Saladworks is a franchise business. Any plans for your private equity fund owners to change the mix?

They made a significant follow-on investment to open up company stores. The thing is simulating that proprietor feel. We need to find a way to replicate that. Chick-Fil-A does that extremely well. They don’t have to put in the capital. They basically run the store and there’s revenue sharing.

 How is the tightening labor market affecting Saladworks’ ability to hire?

[Our nation is] virtually fully employed. So, there are not a lot of people available. And, frankly, if you look at produce — our core product — and our reliance on immigrants, there’s the risk of not having enough people to pick the lettuce and pick the tomatoes. Having a viable workforce in the stores is something that we’ll have to see how it plays out, but it’s certainly a concern.

What’s next for Saladworks?

Our flow is, you decide: What base do I want? Do I want grains? Do I want greens? Increasingly, we think it could be a bone or vegetable broth soup that is the base and then you go and pick the vegetables you want and then have them made into a freshly made soup, curated by you, to your taste and standards. We have soups that are delicious, but they are composed already.

What do you order on your salad?

They tease me because I’m a bit of a carnivore. Our most popular salad is create your own. Mine, I’ll have ham or bacon. I’ll have pepper jack cheese. I’ll have a barbecue chicken and an avocado to soften it out.

You’ve taught management courses in the past. I hate to ask you to boil down a semester in a sentence or two, but…

If I had to boil it down: Planning, organizing, leading, and controlling. Within those four main functions of management, it’s knowing what you do well naturally and focus[ing] on that while building competency in the other things. I say to my team, ‘If you give me the gift of being able to stop me before I take us off a cliff, then I can be creative and have big ideas.’

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.


Homes: Haverford, Florida.

Family: Wife, Debbe; children, Ryan, Andrew, Kelly.

Diplomas: Bowling Green State University: English, political science; Emory University: master's in business administration.

Local businessman he admires: Brown's Super Stores CEO Jeff Brown, at ShopRite. "I totally fell for the guy. He's got such a great heart. You talk about tenacious."


What: Franchise salad restaurant with 94 locations; headquarters in Conshohocken, owned by Centre Lane Partners, a private-equity firm.

To buy: $30,000 fee per unit; three-unit minimum. Must have $1.5 million net worth with liquid assets of $400,000. About $523,000 needed to open store.

Average check: $12.50; $840,000 average unit sales; 2016 revenues, $76 million.

Employees: 1,500; 16 corporate.