The Big Salad Aims To Get Bigger

In just under five years The Big Salad has bloomed from a one-restaurant operation in Grosse Pointe Woods to a chain of four. Two more are opening in Ann Arbor and Rochester Hills in the spring of 2013. Three other metro Detroit locations are on the drawing board, and a new training center opened last week in Novi will prepare Big Salad’s future franchisees to serve greens – and make some green – as the company expands across Michigan and outside the state in the next five years.
 
All this from owners with no restaurant experience. It’s one of many remarkable things about The Big Salad’s march to expansion. Owner John Bornoty, a marketing guy and data guru, and his wife Elizabeth Bornoty, a high school honors math teacher and whiz with numbers, inventory and purchasing, may have brought zero restaurant experience to the table when they opened The Big Salad in 2008, but they made up for it in passion, gumption and a combo of skills that are letting them carve their own style of business in an industry that typically has a set way of doing things.
 
“What’s helped us is not knowing anything about the business,” says Bornoty. “We’re in the people business, not the restaurant business. We hire for personality, and then we’ll train you in our business.”
 
“We always say we recruit, we don’t hire” and that means holding weekly interviews for job candidates rather than waiting until there’s an job opening to fill.
 
The training and hiring practices are somewhat unorthodox. Managerial prospects should have little or no background in the restaurant business – “that [experience] hasn’t worked for us,” says Bornoty, and no new employee works with customers until Day 14 on the job. The entire training period is two months. 
 
It’s why the couple developed a training center and restaurant, which opened in Novi just last month. At 2,500 square feet it’s their largest restaurant and the logistical centerpiece or “main hub” of the company, rolling out a franchise expansion plan that will lead north and west of Metro Detroit.
 
John Bornoty decided a salad-as-a-meal restaurant was what he wanted to do after selling his computer company in 2006. “I sold the business and drove my wife crazy for a year,” he remembers, laughing. They live in Grosse Pointe Woods, where they opened the first store, the smallest, really the incubator, for the growing company.
 
 “Marketing is what I thought my real passion was. I went to New York thinking of buying a marketing and ad agency,” he says.
 
It was when the meeting broke for lunch that he had that a-ha moment, the realization of what he truly wanted to do.
 
“We went across the street to a deli. It was kind of hokey…There was a salad bar, and you could tell they had something there, but they needed to tweak it, to step it up….I’m a healthy eater. I love salads. I was tired of not being able to get a good salad. I’m looking at it. I’m thinking what a good idea.”
 
He spent the next year researching. He convened focus groups at coffee shops, steakhouses. “I would buy them meals and give them a 10-page survey,” he says. “I’m a data nut. The customers will always tell you what they want.”
 
It asked what kind of chair they were sitting in, whether they were comfortable, what they thought about the interior, and of course the food and more.
 
Those responses shaped The Big Salad’s cucumber cool feel, a sedate design scheme that’s comforting, clean and complements the greens and veggies being served – but not in a cutesy, matchy way. The greens and spinach are served from wall-size dispensers, and a buffet of toppings – from veggies, fruits, and nuts to meats and cheeses – are spread like a colorful canvas on a stainless steel counter. 
 
“What we have now is not what I envisioned,” he says.
 
It was the input that took him in a different direction and still determines the company’s next move. But the one thing he was certain of was that he wanted to serve healthy fast food – all of it from reputable U.S. farms – and change the image of salad from a side to a main meal. The motto, says Bornoty, is: Toss it. Chop it. Wrap it. Stuff it. 
 
As the training center opens and expansion plans unroll The Big Salad is also revamping its menu, including beefing up more entree salads, which save diners the decision of choosing their toppings. The Big Salad serves soups, sandwiches, and wraps all with tossed salads. 
 
“We’re reinventing what a salad is….Our new stores probably have 15 more options,” he says. The new menu is being tested in Novi and will spread to all stores by Nov. 1.
 
“When we first opened it was soup and salads,” Bornoty says.”Sandwiches have really taken off.” 
 
Several kinds of bread will be baked in stores except in Grosse Pointe, where it comes from a Breadsmith bakery down the street.
 
There are competitors to Big Salad, Bornoty says, but nothing comparable in Michigan, which makes it ripe for expansion. The current plan is to open a store in downtown Ann Arbor in the spring – four in total in Ann Arbor eventually. Another will open in the spring at Walton and Livernois in Rochester Hills. 
 
“Our goal for 2013 is to award 12 locations,” Bornoty says. “My plan is to go outside of Michigan in 2014.”
 
Big Salad present employee roster totals 25 and growing as as stores open. New locations will focus on dining rooms that encourage people to spend time there and that include larger tables for groups to eat or hold meetings.
 
“My family was in retail. My dad owned grocery stores. The retail was in my blood. I grew the company from the marketing side of it, and I did with the purpose of franchising it. Everything we did was with that purpose.”
 
Even with all the changes underway, Bornoty says The Big Salad is staying true to beliefs-backed practices such as serving only U.S. produce. 
 
“When you’re dealing with produce and farms…we’re very specific with who we buy from and how we buy,” says Bornoty. “Another goal in 2013 is to go visit the farmers we work with.”
 
“The restaurant business can be hard. You don’t always get a good night sleep,” he explains. “That’s why it was nice opening the first one so close to home. But I love the restaurant business. Going from making hundreds of dollars an hour to 80 cents a salad it’s a different world. But I’m a people person. My wife is a people person. My son is a people person. We’re ethnic, Lebanese. We feed people. There’s something soothing about that.”