Tropical Smoothie Cafe increases traffic and sales with the power of OLTs


Photo courtesy of Tropical Smoothie Cafe

Tropical Smoothie Cafe may be known for its namesake drink, but its growth has also come from food.

“We give equal attention to smoothies and food when innovating the menu,” said Kristi Bullock, director of menu innovation at the 1,075-unit Atlanta-based chain.

Over the past year, Tropical Smoothie Cafe has maintained a steady pace by launching limited-time offers, spread over five to eight promotional windows per year. “Internally, we keep our foot on the accelerator pedal, typically throwing two food items and two smoothies into each window,” Bullock said.

That pace propelled Tropical Smoothie Cafe to No. 52 on Technomic’s Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report 2022 ranking, up from No. 58 last year. System-wide sales were up 37.7% year-over-year, and it is the category-leading chain, beating competitors such as Smoothie King (#76) and Jamba (No. 88).

smoothie chain contest

But the category as a whole has also grown, with a number of smaller players heating up the competition. Playa Bowls, a fast casual that offers smoothies, bowls and juices, landed in the Top 500 for the first time in 2022.

Emerging concepts focused on smoothies and juices are also making their mark. Main Squeeze Juice Co. grew sales 65.3% year-over-year, growing locations more than 44% to 26 units. And Beyond Juicery & Eatery sales increased 86.9%, according to Technomic

During the pandemic, more consumers have embraced food as medicine, seeking ingredients with immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. Most juice and smoothie newcomers are embracing this wellness trend, promoting cures, detox drinks, and beverages with extra doses of “wellness.”

Find the right balance

Tropical Smoothie makes a point of balancing health with indulgence, offering smoothies with functional ingredients and antioxidant-rich superfruits as well as those that satisfy sweet cravings.

“We want to communicate the appeal of our menu, and we love every element, highlighting the ingredients and their uniqueness,” Bullock said.

Smoothies and teriyaki dish

The Dragonfruit Smoothie and the Starfruit Smoothie (above) are two recent LTOs that benefit from a “halo of health”. Both contain nutritious superfruits mixed with other fresh produce, including mango, pineapple, strawberries, and banana. The menu also features Super Veggie Smoothies, whipped with spinach, kale, ginger, avocado, and often fruit.

Several of them are labeled “fan favorites”, as are the Balanced Fusions. This group includes less common functional ingredients, such as chia seeds, flax seeds, and whey protein, combined with “fun” flavors like peanut butter, pomegranate, blueberries, and strawberries. “We always keep an eye on taste and flavor, not just functionality,” Bullock said.

Customers can also add a shot of powdered collagen, probiotic, fat burner, or energizer to any smoothie. “There’s a decent amount of pickup on these,” Bullock said. “Some customers want supplements, but others say they drink fresh fruit, and that’s a win for them.”

Bahama Mama

In fact, the chain’s best-selling smoothie is veering towards the indulgent side. The Bahama Mama (above) is a mix of white chocolate, coconut, strawberries and pineapple. Also popular is Mocha Madness, a mix of chocolate, coffee, cappuccino and yogurt.

Stand out with tropical crochet

This summer, the Watermelon Mojito Smoothie and the Mango Berry Cosmo are back on the menu, two “mocktail”-inspired smoothies that fit into the tropical theme of the concept. “We’ve had great success with these mocktails and will continue to think against our tropical hook,” Bullock said, referring to his R&D work with Tropical Smoothie’s head chef, Chris Runkle.

Many food products also have a tropical touch. The core menu focuses on flatbreads, wraps, sandwiches and salads, with Tropical Teriyaki Flatbread the current star item. It’s a mix of grilled chicken, tropical teriyaki sauce, melted mozzarella, romaine, and tomato topped with roasted pineapple salsa. The suggested pairing is the Dragonfruit Smoothie.

For summer, Salsa Verde ‘Dilla will join the quesadilla lineup. The new Salsa Verde Chicken Quesadilla is designed to accompany mojito and cosmo “mocktail” smoothies.

At the end of the year, two island dishes: the Hawaiian chicken flatbread, enhanced with the same homemade pineapple salsa but flavored with a new barbecue sauce, and a Crunch Island Thai dish. The drink pairing for the holiday season is a red sangria smoothie.

The Tropical Smoothie Cafe truly believes in the power of OLTs to showcase innovation and engage customers, Bullock said.

But not everything innovative reaches the top during the R&D process, she admitted. “We played with turmeric [an anti-inflammatory] but it did not perform well in consumer taste tests. We’ll keep it front and center so when our guest is ready, we’ll be ready,” Bullock said.

next moves

Personalization is growing every day in the chain, and Tropical Smoothie Cafe is leading the way with a new app and loyalty program launching later this month. This will allow customers to personalize digital orders, not just when visiting cafes.

Bullock and Runkle are also working on finalizing their base menu strategy.

“We want to be very clear about our direction,” she said. “If the ingredients were to be all-natural, if our items were to be no added sugar… There are more people entering the juice and smoothie space now and we need to make sure we offer what our customers are looking for.”

What Tropical Smoothie Cafe is clear on is value. Smoothie prices are $5.39-$6.39, lower than most competitors. “We’re seen as better value and we want to maintain that position in the market,” Bullock said.

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