Warren Ward raises an eyebrow when he's reminded that the new Freshii restaurant he manages in Toronto's Forest Hill Village has just run out of frozen yogurt.
"Sorry about that, though I guess it's a good thing for us in a way," he says. This is after the store has efficiently worked through a lunchtime lineup that extended outside the door.
While running out indicates the popularity of the new outlet, which opened in late April, it's also unusual for this burgeoning chain, which prides itself on providing fast and seamless service for its customers.
Founded in 2005 with one outlet in the Toronto-Dominion Centre in downtown Toronto, Freshii combines low-tech – actually, no-tech – natural vegetables, grains and dairy products with high-tech ordering and payment systems and up-to-the-minute technology for preparing wholesome meals and snacks.
It's a recipe that seems to be working, since in eight years Freshii has expanded to nearly 60 locations, in Canada, the United States, Colombia, the United Arab Emirates, Sweden and Switzerland.
"Technology is critical to what we do every day," says Melissa Crnic, Freshii's franchise communications manager, who is also in charge of special projects for the Toronto-based firm.
As founder and chief executive officer Matthew Corrin explains on the company's website, "We operate in an emerging industry we call 'health-casual.' It has all the elements of fast casual (high-quality food that's quick and convenient) with the added focus on health and wellness."
"Our customers want food to be great, really healthy but also quick and fit to their lifestyles," Ms. Crnic adds. "Our motto is: energized people on the go."
Freshii's customer base is 58-per-cent female, she says. The typical customer is between 23 and 35, and many are young mothers, women working outside home full-time or both – in other words, busy people.
The result is an intense focus for Ms. Crnic and the company on finding new ways to deploy technology to make customers' experience faster and easier.
Customers can see this now when they come into a Freshii. At lunchtime, there are often lines, so to ease the wait, at the entrance patrons are offered clipboards with menus where they can check off ingredients for their salads, smoothies or other meals.
This is too much decision-making for some people, so Freshii also posts a large menu on the wall, offering set, numbered meals.
This gives customers the choice – have something directly off the menu, or customize the meal with extras or substitutes such as allergy-sensitive or gluten-free ingredients.
While the bananas, lettuce, quinoa and wraps behind the counter stay natural, "the making of the food becomes more automated all the time," Ms. Crnic says.
"I was just at a trade show a couple of weeks ago where I saw a blender that interests me – you press a button and it knows by itself what you're blending so it blends to the particular consistency you need."
Ms. Crnic and Mr. Ware agree that the main focus of Freshii's technology drive is not food preparation but point-of-sale – making it faster and easier to order and pay.
"We allow our guests to order and pay online," Mr. Ward says. "They can go to the Freshii website and order, and their orders go to our point-of-sale [the counter] in the store, letting us know there's a new online order. That's why our managers are equipped with BlackBerries or iPhones."
Ms. Crnic says that in November of 2012 the chain launched a mobile app as a pilot project at its Canadian stores. "Guests load up a balance on their phones, and then instead of pulling out their wallets they can swipe the phone to pay," she says.
"It's great for us and great for the guests," Ms. Crnic explains. "People live on their phones. We're looking to mobile ordering, mobile payment having an experience where you don't even have to leave your phone."
Loading up prepayments on the phone means that customers will be back, and the customers can earn loyalty points and get a free meal.
"Loyalty is really important. The cost of acquiring a new customer is way greater than getting someone to come back again."
The last thing Freshii wants is for a customer to be frustrated because the line took too long or they couldn't figure out what to order. That's why they're constantly upgrading and changing their app to add new functions.
Mr. Ward notes that one outlet in Toronto has posted an electronic menu in its window, so people can decide on their orders before they walk inside.
Freshii is also introducing electronic key fobs that can register and pay for orders, as well as order-takers who will come to people lining up and take their payments on hand-held devices before they get to the front. It's a model similar to what happens in Apple stores, Mr. Ward says.
The company uses different tech companies in different countries to bring in its innovations, says Ms. Crnic. It's also putting more effort into social media all the time.
Freshii has engaged a social media co-ordinator who is also a nutritionist, to reach customers and interact with them.
"Educating our guests is really important – they want to know and we want to explain, why are foods like collard green wraps, kale and quinoa good," Ms. Crnic says.
"We encourage our guests to share their experiences at our stores via Instagram, too. A lot of our guests take beautiful photographs, pictures of meals that are not necessarily something our chefs have offered.
"We even developed a social media menu, created by guests – some of those items are in our stores today." In addition to social media, Freshii also does a lot of e-mail marketing – specials, promotions, news about updates to its stores.
The food will remain natural and the packaging biodegradable, but the technology will continue to become more sophisticated and faster, Ms. Crnic says.
"There's a lot of potential in our industry. We're creating a lifestyle network for people who come to our stores."