Company Profiles March/April 2019

Healthy Habits

Today’s health-conscious consumers know food. With the rise in restaurants offering fresh, convenient and affordable options on the menu, stopping for a quick bite never tasted so good.


When Cultures came on the scene in the 1980s, it quickly became known for its sandwiches and legendary smoothies. Fast forward 40 years, and the company has grown, changed hands, and is stronger than ever. “It’s a testament to what the team has done to keep it relevant,” says Jennifer Ma, Brand Leader.

Acquired by MTY Food Group in 2004, the revitalized brand now offers a fresh, innovative menu. Ma says a strong supply chain provides franchisees with competi­tive pricing, enabling them to offer a variety of taste pro­files and price points. “At the end of the day, we are still a business. We’ve made smart decisions and we’ve found a good balance in offering a solid menu at great prices, and our franchisees can profit from doing this. It’s not what people see on the outside, but the engine that keeps the brand running. It’s part of the success.”

The signature smoothie still graces the menu, but it’s been joined by gourmet sandwiches, mighty salads, and grain bowls. Old favourites, like Caesar salad, have been replaced by healthier versions, like kale Caesar salad with the option to add tempeh.

“People are seeking options that are not only health­ier, but more interesting. Eating out is not just for sus­tenance,” explains Ma. “Customers want to have a good experience, and want their food to look good and taste good. We wouldn’t be relevant and wouldn’t have much of a brand if we didn’t take steps to make that shift.”

With 50 locations across Canada, the concept is open to expanding, especially in office towers where catering offers an additional revenue stream to the breakfast and lunch crowd. A successful franchisee will be a brand ambassador, and understand that they’re in it for the long haul. “It’s not a sprint. There will be ups and downs, but a franchisee has to trust the team behind them.”

Ma’s advice to prospective franchisees is to be ready to put in the work, from manning the front line to manag­ing food and labour costs. “It’s easy to get engrained in running a business and forget the other side, like manag­ing the books and bills. There’s the time you spend at the store and the time you spend at home, doing your homework to do what’s needed. You have to have both.”

She adds that Cultures breaks the stereotypes that once gave chain restaurants a bad name. “At one time, there was a perception that chains can’t be good, but a chain can be great. Not only does it have a lot of back­ing behind it, from design to operations, they are just as local, and serve solid menu choices. I think Cultures is a good example of what a chain can be.”

Eat Clean Healthy Grill & Juice Bar

Once a competitive hockey player, JP Morrissey began to gain weight when he stopped playing sports. “I never had to worry about my weight because I was so active. When the activity level slowed down, it didn’t take long before I started packing on the pounds.” In an effort to regain a healthier lifestyle, he began a clean-eating program. “It was the first time I’d eaten clean on a regular basis, and I noticed a big change in the way I felt, and a lightbulb went off.”

When he realized that few food options catered to his lifestyle, it sparked the idea to start Eat Clean Healthy Grill & Juice Bar. The first location opened in 2014 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “Which ironically, has the highest obesity rates in the country,” says Morrissey. “I wanted to open in Newfoundland because we needed it the most.”

He met with holistic and sports nutritionists and fitness professionals to develop a menu that caters to a variety of lifestyles, from vegans to bodybuilders to those follow­ing low-carb keto diets. “What we are doing is completely different and unique.” They also offer meal preparation services. “It makes life a lot more convenient. There’s no excuse not to eat well on a regular basis.”

With five locations open and four more in the works, the concept is gaining exposure and drawing interest across Canada and the United States. Morrissey says the No. 1 attribute he looks for in prospective franchisees is coachability. “You have to be coachable. I can’t stress that enough. Working with the brand and being a team player is very important.”

For Morrissey, the feel-good aspect of the business is a big benefit. “This food changes lives. There’s satisfac­tion when you lay your head on your pillow at the end of the night. The relationships you’ve made, the conversa­tions you’ve had. People telling you they’re so glad you opened here. This has really helped me with my diabetes or my celiac. You rest your head at night and say ‘I’ve done something.’”

As a franchise owner, that’s the biggest thing. The owners really develop good relationships within their community. The thing about eat clean is that you can eat there every day. You get to know your customers because they’re regulars and you develop relationships you get to know people you get to know their families and their kids. It’s not just about dollars and cents. At the end of the day you’re doing something that’s positive.”

A blend of in-store and corporate training readies franchisees for opening. “We want customers to feel wel­come and ask questions, so the owner has to be engag­ing and has to be a good communicator. I think that’s one of the keys to business. Some of our customers have allergies or restrictions, so communication and training is very important for this type of restaurant.”

Morrissey’s advice to perspective franchisees is to work with the franchisor and keep communication open. “My phone is always on. My franchisees are like my kids. They’re family to me. No matter what time they call, we always have an open door policy, no questions asked.” He adds “Care about your customer and work as a team with the other franchisees I think that’s a key to success in any business.”


Dirtbelly cofounders Jason Cunningham and Derek Brock are no strangers to fast casual food success. The duo originally founded Jugo Juice in 1998, and grew the concept to 140 stores before selling it to MTY in 2011. They went on to launch 98 Food Co., a boutique firm of hipster foodie brands, including Dirtbelly, which launched in 2015.

“We saw a major gap in the market for healthy, pre­mium, quality food, especially a menu based around fresh tossed greens, quinoa bowls and warm bowls that are an attractive winter option,” says Cunningham.

The diverse menu offers a myriad of options customers can enjoy from morning to night, from healthy superfood shakes to quenching Tealadas, a combination of brewed tea with fruit and herbs. The whimsical name sprung from the idea of garden-fresh food that goes from ground to table to belly, a playful take on a wholesome concept.

As the market expands to meet the needs of busy lifestyles and sophisticated palettes, Cunningham says healthy food is becoming a larger part of our culture with every decade. “I think what makes Dirtbelly unique is that we’ve given you flavours and ingredients that you’d find in the best restaurants in the city, and we’ve got that down to a fast casual level with flavour profiles and combinations that you normally wouldn’t find in a fast casual environment.”

The company continues to grow, with three locations in Calgary and four stores in development for 2019, includ­ing one in the iconic Stantec ower in downtown Edmon­ton. As they expand, Cunningham and Brock recognize that growing a franchise chain is as much about building a sense of family, relationships, and community, something they’ve fostered since they first partnered in 1998.

Successful franchisees are hands-on, passionate pur­veyors of healthy, quality food. In return, the turnkey system offers many benefits to prospective partners. A streamlined operating system handles everything from real estate to lease negotiations, allowing franchisees to focus on learning the ropes and hiring a team for the opening. The innovative store design embraces the farm-to-table concept, with light plank wood and vibrant green accents for a fresh aesthetic.

Cunningham’s advice: Secure the right location. “You can’t move a store once it’s built, so be patient and find the right piece of real estate.” He also encourages part­ners to choose a franchise and brand they are passion­ate about. “After the initial honeymoon is over, running a business day in and day out can be gruelling, so you have to have something that you really believe in to be in it for the long haul.”

By Gina Mikkar 

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