The space was small, but the plan was not, when John and Elizabeth Bornoty opened The Big Salad in Grosse Pointe Woods in 2008.
What the couple envisioned was to market the salad in a new way by making it a meal rather than a beginner or a side dish with a classed-up salad bar chock-full-of-toppings. It would be the the foundation a company that would spread across metro Detroit, Michigan and beyond.
Four years later, their little postage stamp store on Mack Avenue, a calming mix of greens and yellows around a smorgasbord of colorful salad toppings has grown to three larger locations. Two more stores are opening in 2013 in Ann Arbor and Rochester Hills, and four others are on the drawing board, awaiting franchisees to take them on.
The newest store in Novi is probably four times larger than the Woods location and opened in October. It is the training center and franchise launching spot for an expansion that will head north and west and then national by 2014, Bornoty says.
The goal is to open 12 franchises in 2013 - just one of many big plans for the company that has recently added to its menu, won industry awards for its smart, safe way of handling fresh foods and is working to deepen and personalize relationships with the farmers and local food-producers it works with.
"We're reinventing what a salad is….Our new stores probably have 15 more options," he says. "When we first opened it was soup and salads. Sandwiches have really taken off….And we've added entree salads so customers can choose from a menu if they don't want to make their own."
The Big Salad motto: Toss it. Chop it. Wrap it. Stuff it.
Several breads are now baked in stores except in Grosse Pointe, which serves sandwiches on bread from the Breadsmith bakery down the street.
Starting the company in the Woods, near the Bornoty's home, was the perfect business incubator. Elizabeth Bornoty is a favorite math teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School. John Bornoty hit on the idea of a salad-centered restaurant in the months after selling his computer company in 2006 "and driving my wife crazy for a year."
“The restaurant business can be hard. You don't always get a good night sleep…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," says Bornoty, a salad lover, healthful eater and people person, sitting just a few feet away from the colorful array of veggies, fruits, nuts and much more. "But it's been absolutely wonderful. It's a lot of work, but a lot of reward."
It was on a trip to New York to discuss the purchase of a marketing and ad agency, what might be his next career, when during a lunch meeting at a deli he spotted a salad bar and thought, like so many inventors and entrepreneurs, there has to be a better way.
"You could tell they had a good idea, but it needed to be done better…It was kind of hokey," he says.
He pitched the idea to his wife, and they figured her numbers sense and his marketing savvy could be key ingredients for success. He started by gathering focus groups and directing that feedback into the design of the restaurant—right down to the kind of chairs, tables and paint colors people liked. Most importantly what they were looking for in a lunch.
"A lot of what I thought I would do, I did not do, based on the 10-page surveys," he says.
When The Big Salad opened it was yet another entrepreneur's hopeful entry into the restaurant industry, but the Bornotys knew, if done right, their salad-as-meal was an idea that would spread.
They were right. It's pretty impressive for a couple with no experience in the industry. Bornoty believes the success is a result of having no restaurant background.
The company does not operate by standard restaurant industry practices, preferring even to hire managers with no restaurant experience.
"What's helped us is not knowing anything about the business," says Bornoty. "We're in the people business, not the restaurant business."