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January 23rd, 2012 - Kelley Chambers

Keeping Cool

Coolgreens opens fifth store with eyes on regional and national expansion.


Coolgreens Cafe & Bistro isn’t a national chain, although with the opening of its fifth store in January in Edmond, managing partner Allan McMurrain is looking for additional markets and opportunities outside the metro area.

His primary goal with the salad, wrap, pizza and yogurt eateries is quality. And while every restaurateur worth his salt talks about quality, McMurrain knows that his customers will not come back if they receive anything less than fresh produce, high-quality meats and tofu, and signature soups and salad dressings.

McMurrain, who initially thought he would have just one store in Nichols Hills when it opened in October 2009, was encouraged by customers to expand.

As the brand grows, he wants patrons to walk into any of the five stores and find consistency. Maintaining that is a challenge, however, especially if chefs at each location are charged with replicating the recipes.

“You have to have consistency in your product,” he says. “If I give a chef in each store the same ingredients and recipes, it would come out tasting five different ways.”

right, Coolgreens at City Place, Downtown Oklahoma City

In response, McMurrain opened a central commissary on Classen Boulevard, where dressings and soups are prepared and delivered to the stores, while all the fresh vegetables and toppings are chopped on-site at each location. With the commissary, he is able to control quality and consistency.

“You always want to keep that early, small feel,” he says. “When you go to a chain or franchising, you’re really losing control, and that’s why we don’t know if we’ll go that way.”

McMurrain says as Coolgreens grows, the central preparation facilities must be nearby.

Then there is the dilemma of personnel. It is unlikely many employees of McDonald’s or Burger King feel they have much of a stake in their individual restaurants. McMurrain wants Coolgreens employees and managers to be invested in its success. He knows that apathetic workers can reflect poorly on even a good product, which has led to a cautious growth pattern.

“You’ve got to have good people,” he says. “I could build one of these a month, but if you don’t have the people to support it, you’re going to hurt your brand.”

Keith Paul, president of A Good Egg Dining Group, knows a thing or two about maintaining quality as a restaurant concept grows. He has his signature Cheever’s Cafe and also owns Iron Starr Urban BBQ, Red Prime Steak, Tucker’s Onion Burgers and Republic Gastropub. He is able to keep a close eye on the restaurants, staff and quality because of their proximity. Tucker’s is across the street from Cheever’s, Red Prime is about a mile south, Iron Starr is about a mile north of Cheever’s, and Republic is about another two miles north of there.

“I have many of the same people I’ve had with me for years running these restaurants,” he says. “You do tend to give up a great deal of control with each new restaurant, and that’s why you need good people you can trust.”

Paul says when he opened an Iron Starr on Campus Corner in Norman, several factors led to its closing: The brand didn’t seem to appeal to the college crowd looking to eat at nearby restaurants for a quick, inexpensive lunch, and Paul could not be there as often as he liked.

“It just wasn’t a fit for that location,” he says. “We decided to close it to keep our focus around our core restaurants in Oklahoma City.”

While he says he might look at expanding outside his safe zone in the future, for now, he is keeping everything close to home.

McMurrain, on the other hand, is eyeing future possibilities, be those franchising or simply more companyowned stores. He says every option is “on the table.”

In 2012, his goal is to open four or five Coolgreens in Tulsa. Encouraged by visiting with other brands that expanded nationally, he says he thinks Coolgreens could be a hit in places such as Austin, Texas; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Southern California. He sees similarities to no-frills burrito chain Chipotle, where, as at Coolgreens, diners simply walk through a line, choose ingredients, and pick up their order at the end of the counter.

McMurrain says he is looking to fill a healthy-eating void, and if a place that doesn’t serve beef, ranch dressing and popular sodas can make it in Oklahoma, he’s confident it can make it anywhere.

“If you give people the option of eating healthy, they would rather eat healthy,” he says. “There just aren’t many options out there.”

Photos by Mark Hancock

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