Williams Fresh Cafe Reinvents with Healthier Options


Is it possible to run a successful, healthy eatery without promoting a health halo? Well, it seems to have worked at Williams with its Fresh Cafe concept. What began in 1993 as Williams Coffee Pub has morphed into the fresh fast-casual Williams Fresh Cafe, with 40 locations in Ontario. And, fresh means healthy, too. To find out how the company executives successfully reimagined the concept, F&H spoke with Rainer Mueller, president of Williams. Here he reveals details about the fresh café’s re-engineered menu.

F&H: Why was Williams transformed from a Coffee Pub to a Fresh Cafe?

Rainer Mueller: Under new ownership in 2006, we began improving the Williams brand by clarifying who we are to our guests and simplifying the operations for our franchise partners. We wanted to move beyond coffee to enlarge the breadth and depth of where we were going with our customer experience. Our success has vindicated our new approach. However, even with the new name, new logo, improved design and re-engineered menu, we have remained true to our original vision, which is to deliver a unique dining experience to each guest by serving quality food products in a welcoming and comfortable environment — fresh, comfortable and healthier says it all.

F&H: Have you seen same-store sales increase?

RM: Our new concept has doubled our check averages. Our menu is designed to appeal to guests who want to choose fresh, quality foods without sacrificing speed of service.

F&H: What makes Williams’ offerings unique in the fast-casual segment?

RM: We have no fryers and no hoods, meaning we have all low-fat menu items. Each menu item is hand-crafted at the time of service. All items are freshly assembled from ingredients that are freshly cut and prepped. We’ve introduced ‘without gluten’ menu items. Due to the impossibility of ensuring there is no cross-contamination with items that may contain gluten, we cautiously refer to them as items “without gluten.” We also [offer] pre-packaged gluten-free items where we can assure customers that the food is gluten-free. Plus, we provide guidance about selecting our “without gluten” and gluten-free menu items online. Our menu selection is ideal for customers wanting a vegan menu. And, since we freshly assemble [our dishes] from whole ingredients, we can accommodate a range of special food needs. Most of our dressings, for example, are made fresh on site so the ingredients are known to our service staff, and they can readily share the information with our customers.

F&H: What is Williams’ core demographic?

RM: Our customers vary by daypart and location, but everywhere we appeal to the 25- to 39-year-old female. As we continue to add unique, innovative menu items, our appeal grows. For example, we have a new relationship with Yogurty’s and are trying a self-serve bar in four locations. Customers can decide how much they want as we sell the frozen yogurt by the ounce, and they select their toppings. This is very appealing to the younger generation who like frozen yogurt.

F&H: Have you considered including smaller portion sizes on your other menu items?

RM: All of our sides are available as separate items. We have desserts available in the two-bite portion size. We’ve also focused on having customers put combinations together that appeal to them. We started with our “Take-Your-Pick” program that allows customers to bundle a half sandwich or soup with a small salad and a treat of their choice, which includes an apple as a selection. It appeals to customers seeking ‘without gluten’ or gluten-free selections as they can mix and match. We recently launched an updated version, our “Real Fresh Deal,” which means customers can combine any of our entrée offerings with any side and a coffee or water for an extra $2. This fall, we’re introducing a value size, which is a snack portion of our offerings. We think of this as menu evolution based upon customer preferences.

F&H: This must require staff training.

RM: Yes, staff training is ongoing. Fortunately our fresh, healthy approach resonates with our staff. They are interested in the content of the menu items we prepare and are very protective of our customers. Our staff appreciate that we are [appealing to] the lifestyle changes many people, even younger people, are seeking in terms of the foods they eat….We have introduced loose tea and emphasize our quality teas, as health-conscious people are either no longer drinking coffee or reducing their intake.

F&H: Are you concerned about sustaining this model as the cost of fresh, quality fruits and vegetables rises?

RM: There is always price sensitivity, but we are confident we can deliver on value. Customers appreciate the quality and freshness of the ingredients and understand the value we deliver. Because our operation’s model is a small footprint, assemble-to-order and there’s a reliance on many ingredients served fresh — that is raw — we are very cost-effective, and we are putting emphasis on the value we deliver with our value-sized portions.

F&H: Are you making any progress in reducing sodium, particularly as you introduce new items?

RM: We remain aspirational with regard to sodium. We tried lower sodium content soups, but they were rejected by our customers. In our market, our guests have not yet accepted lower sodium levels in soups and sandwiches.

F&H: It’s surprising that you don’t promote your menu as healthy, there are no nutritionals on your menu boards and the word healthy rarely appears. Why is that?

RM: Partly, it’s our typically Canadian approach to be understated. But, also, there are many regulations [about what] health claims [can be made]. Our healthy offering is implied in our menu item descriptions, and, of course, our nutritional information is available on our website. We are very proud of the fresh, healthy food experience we can provide our customers. Plans are underway to provide more of our nutritional information on our menu boards in our cafés.

Williams has done a good job providing the nutritional information online for its menu items with the appropriate cautions for customers who have allergy or ingredient concerns. It’s also encouraging to see they provide allergen information for eight of the 11 most common allergens.

On the downside, many of Williams’ sandwiches are high in sodium, with ingredients such as bread, deli meats and cheese. Ideally sandwiches should contain only cheese or meat with lots of fresh vegetables and greens, especially when they are freshly assembled. One healthy option is to serve open-face sandwiches with a slice of bread.

It should also be noted that since Williams’ artisanal sandwiches are quite large, they are higher in calories. For example, a typical homemade tuna salad sandwich, which is small, would weigh approximately 155g and contain approximately 330 calories. Offering customers the option to buy half a sandwich is helpful, but using thinner slices of artisanal breads, serving open-faced sandwiches and reducing the portion size of proteins in favour of more vegetables would also help
lower the calories.

Every other month the “We’ve Analyzed This” column offers insight into healthy menu initiatives at various restaurants. It’s written by registered dietitians from the Oakville, Ont.-based Food Systems Consulting Inc., a Canada-wide consulting group specializing in healthy eating away from home. For more information, visit foodsystems.com.

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