Green Bean is a fast-casual, sustainable, salad and wrap restaurant located in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis, MO. Our mission at Green Bean is to provide tasty, convenient, and nutritious salad fare to our Midwestern community in an eco-friendly manner.
Sarah Haselkorn is an undergraduate senior studying systems engineering and entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis. During her junior year, she opened Green Bean, a fast-casual, sustainable salad and wrap restaurant located a few miles from campus. Haselkorn competed in the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards and was a finalist in 2012. She is currently working on expanding Green Bean, and starting an e-commerce business sock company.
MO: You impressively launched a restaurant at just 19 years old. The restaurant business is notoriously hard, what made you think that you could beat the odds?
Sarah: One problem with the restaurant industry is that, in a lot of ways, there are very few barriers to entry. With enough initial capital or a loan, anyone can set up shop. For a lot of people it’s more of a lifestyle business, not an entrepreneurial venture that’s focusing on branding and, hopefully, scaling. I think I have beaten the odds because I didn’t go into it thinking, “Hey, I’m going to open up a restaurant.” I went into it thinking, “Here is an opportunity in the market. It involves feeding people. I’m going to take it. And I’m going to execute well.” Execution is crucial. I really believe that if I decide I’m going to be successful at something, I will make sure that it happens. We also did our research. We read about and visited similar concepts on the East Coast, and we compared foot traffic numbers to be able to estimate our organic revenue ramp-up.
MO: How did you come up with the concept of the Green Bean? What were some of the challenges that you faced during the early development stages of the business?
Sarah: Green Bean was a concept that was germinating (forgive the pun) in my mind throughout my first two years at Washington University. I had moved from Washington, D.C. where there are so many healthy choices, and even some salad concepts. When I got to St. Louis I quickly noticed how difficult it was to find something healthy, both on and off campus. With health trends growing so quickly, and certain areas of St. Louis growing as well, it seemed like there was a big gap in the market, and I wanted to fill that. St. Louis is home to two top-100 universities, as well as many more institutions of higher education, and of course the BJC hospital complex has tens of thousands of employees. There are plenty of people here who understand the value of healthy lifestyle choices (including nutrition choices), so I wanted to be able to provide them with a quick and healthy option that they couldn’t currently get.
Since starting up, I’ve faced more challenges than I can recount in this space. No one ever said it was going to be easy! Raising capital for a restaurant is always tough, and of course the build-out and equipment cost more and took longer than anticipated. Managing employees who are all older than yourself is also a challenge when you are 19. Fortunately, I put a lot of emphasis on hiring, so I’ve surrounded myself with an amazing team of hard-working individuals who respect me and care so passionately about Green Bean. Every day is a challenge, but that’s also what is so fun about it. I’ve dealt with uncooperative vendors; I’ve had to handle extremely messy and distressing issues with my former business partner culminating in his departure from the business; and I’ve had to let go employees who were not pulling their weight as Green Bean team members. It has all made me a stronger person and a more experienced businessperson. I think I’ve experienced more before the age of 21 than many people see in a lifetime – it’s exciting; it just forces you to grow up quickly!
MO: Can you talk about the process of putting together a network of local farmers and merchants?
Sarah: Working with farmers is definitely tough – they’re hard to reach, hard to find, and hard to manage. Right now we are working with a distributor that handles that process for us. We can specify which items we want to get locally, and they will get it if possible, and fill in from outside the region when necessary. We don’t have the luxury of a rotating menu – our customers expect consistency at all times. If someone comes in asking for the Cobb-Out, and we’re out of tomatoes, they aren’t going to be happy. That’s why we function on a “local when possible” system. We are looking forward to a farm aggregation online platform that is currently in the works though. That will make it easier for us to order a larger percentage of our products locally.
Merchants are easy – St. Louis is full of these wonderful, homegrown small businesses founded by amazing people. From day one we’ve been working with Whisk: A Sustainable Bakeshop, founded by a SLU graduate who makes baked goods from mostly local ingredients. She delivers our cake balls with rotating seasonal flavors, and they are a big hit! We just brought on a new tea vendor, The ReTrailer. Lisa hand-makes all of her teas sustainably, and sells them out of a real trailer. She has been delivering her “Fake Coffee” blend to us, and is working on a custom Green Bean blend. We also work with Eat Local / GrubGo which is a local merchant platform. They help promote, support, and connect the businesses within their network, which makes my job very easy in that regard.
MO: What advice would you give to someone who is seeking investment?
Sarah: That’s a tough question! It’s hard because I think it varies in each industry. There are a few standards that are universal though. First off, I’d say start early. It always takes longer than you think. Most of all, though, be passionate, be candid, and be genuine. A lot of investors put more emphasis on the people behind the business than the idea itself. For the restaurant industry, there is a lot of emphasis on experience because, as you said, it’s a notoriously difficult industry to succeed in. If you can get a chef or partner on board with some reputation or notoriety, you should be much more successful in fundraising. We partnered with a Washington, DC chef, Peter Pastan, who owns two well-known restaurants (2amys and Obelisk) and is a 9-time James Beard Award nominee for best chef of the mid-Atlantic. He created our menu, and continues to advise us on food, recipes, and anything else we need.
MO: Can you talk about your plans for expansion and if there’s anything that you’re going to do differently this time around?
Sarah: We don’t have any settled plans yet but we are always thinking about expansion. Assuming we do expand, there are so many things I want to do differently! With this being my first restaurant, I learned a lot along the way and made plenty of mistakes. I’m so excited to have the chance to do it again. We have just opened up the discussion of expansion, so there is a lot to be decided: when, where, what will we change? I’m not interested in forcing it; I’m willing to wait for the right opportunity (location, cost, etc.) to give us the greatest chance for success. It seems logical to expand within St. Louis first since we already have our network of customers and vendors here, but there are also many potential markets for us in other Midwestern or Southern cities. It will be interesting to see where we head, so definitely keep an eye on us!
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