America’s fast-food industry might be due for an upgrade. Steele Smiley, the founder of Crisp & Green, is leading the charge.
Serial restaurant impresario Steele Smiley has often been compared to a modern-day Ray Kroc—the longtime CEO of McDonald’s who pioneered modern fast-food retailing. Photo courtesy of Crisp & Green
As simple as it may seem—two dots and a curved line inside a yellow circle—the ‘smiley face’ is perhaps one of the world’s most iconic ideograms. Yet, in a cruel twist of irony, the popular symbol known the world over—the OG of emojis, if you will—has a history steeped in controversy; the battle over its ownership and royalty rights is a story fraught with a mélange of competing backstories and corporate interests—all of which went to great lengths to lay claim to the universally upbeat and ubiquitous design. (And no, Forrest Gump did not create the original smiley face by wiping his muddy face on a T-shirt as depicted in the 1994 blockbuster film.)
The dispute over who owns the rights to the ‘smiley face’ came to a head in 2006, when Walmart attempted to block a French designer who claimed to have created le smiley in the wake of the 1968 student riots in Paris; after 10-years of legal wrangling, which eventually led to an out-of-court settlement, Walmart trumpeted the return of its smiley face to its shoppers in 2016, and it has continued to play a prominent role in the retailer’s brand communications ever since.
But lost somewhere in the mire of smiley face lore, however, is the story of Richard “Dick” Smiley, a former Montana state legislator, who allegedly designed the very first smiley face as a synesthetic campaign tchotchke designed to prod voters into remembering his last name when it came time to cast their votes in the early 1960s. “In my family, there is no doubt about who created the original ‘smiley face’—I seriously looked into trying to trademark my grandpa’s genius idea years ago, but with all the hubbub around the competing lawsuits, I quickly disabused myself of that idea. I let it go,” said Steele Smiley from the main dining room in his newly minted Stalk & Spade restaurant—the first all plant-based franchisable burger chain in the country. “Then again—had I secured rights to the ‘smiley face,’ I probably wouldn’t be here doing all this,” as he gestures with his open arms toward the bright and expansive yet adroitly spartan aesthetic of his latest fast-casual concept that is aiming to become a healthier and more sustainable alternative to McDonald’s.
Coming from just about anyone else, saying out loud that one harbors ambitions to pull the rug from under a $200 billion juggernaut like McDonald’s might be considered borderline delusional, but Stalk & Spade is far from Smiley’s first rodeo; in fact, it’s the third successful franchise concept he has under his belt with a fourth one on the way.
For over a decade, Smiley, a Virginia native and former NCAA Division I swimmer, helmed the Snap Fitness empire from its headquarters in Minnesota, eventually growing it to 2,600 locations in 12 countries before stepping down in 2016. For his next act, he set his sights on the emerging trend of healthy fast-casual restaurants by launching Crisp & Green, an on-demand, choose-your-own-gastronomic-adventure, salad concept.
Now, five years after cutting the ribbon on the first Crisp & Green, a concept that has taken the nation—particularly the Midwest and Southwest—by storm with over 100 locations open or in development across 12 states, many industry insiders now view it as the healthy flyover yin to the yang of coastal salad phenom chain Sweetgreen, which is reportedly gearing up for a multibillion-dollar IPO later this year. “If you live in California or New York, you know Sweetgreen—they’re everywhere,” mused Fox Business Channel analyst Ethan Bearman, who follows the healthy food and restaurant industry closely. “But once you leave the coasts, you are in Crisp & Green country. And frankly, I think Crisp & Green will eventually give Sweetgreen a run for its money. It’s a much smarter application of the concept of healthy bowls and salads—and a lot of that comes down to the ownership. With Crisp & Green, its one guy—a storied health evangelist. With Sweetgreen, it’s all private equity guys. Who do you think really has your best interests at heart?”
Steele brushes off any comparison with Sweetgreen. “At the end of the day, we are both moving the needle towards healthier eating. They do it their way and I do it mine; there is plenty of room for us to both be successful. We are both filling a huge white space in the market,” remarked Smiley from his corporate office in the tiny village of Wayzata, Minnesota, just fifteen minutes west of Minneapolis—the town where he has launched all of his new business concepts before rolling them out nationally.
With Crisp & Green, it’s one guy—a storied health evangelist. With Sweetgreen, it’s all private equity guys. Who do you think really has your best interests at heart?
Stalk & Spade: Taking Aim at the Golden Arches
And while it’s true that Crisp & Green and Sweetgreen are carving out an entirely new restaurant category—fast casual salads—Steele’s Stalk & Spade concept is unapologetically taking direct aim at the titans of fast food, placing a big bet that by offering a 100 percent plant-based alternative to burgers, fries and milkshakes, he can appeal to an increasingly health-conscious consumer set—eating into market share from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and the like.
“If I told you the first Stalk & Spade outside of Minnesota will be opening in Miami, you probably wouldn’t be all that surprised with the city’s beach and body culture,” remarks Smiley. “But guess what—franchise store number two is opening in Des Moines, Iowa of all places. Corn and cattle country! It just goes to show you that demand for plant-based protein alternatives is widespread. If you can make plant proteins taste good—which is really the only thing that matters and what we have really nailed—there is no reason that this industry won’t explode in popularity everywhere.”
Paco & Lime: Putting Chipotle on Notice
In an exclusive to Worth, Smiley unveiled detailed plans for yet another healthy restaurant franchise concept—a concept branded as Paco & Lime, a Mexican and Southwest ‘Chipotle-killer concept’ that will open its doors early next year with plans for coast-to-coast expansion.
“Paco & Lime will really upend the segment that Chipotle has dominated for so many years,” observed Smiley. “They have had a great run, but the Chipotle brand and its product are both so tired; it’s hasn’t evolved much at all in the past 20 years. It was a concept born well before the digitalization of restaurant services, and its footprint is so large that the transformational change it needs to connect with the next generation of consumers is really out of reach. My goal is for Paco & Lime to become the fastest growing restaurant franchise in history—and that means opening over 50 stores in the first 36 months—a record set by LeBron James’ Blaze Pizza,” offered Smiley. “And based on initial interest in Paco & Lime from just my current franchise partners for Crisp & Green and Stalk & Spade, I think we will smash that benchmark.”
Paco & Lime will really upend the segment that Chipotle has dominated for so many years.
Like with all of his previous new franchise concepts, the first Paco & Lime concept restaurant will also bow to the public on the main street of downtown Wayzata, just steps from the original Crisp & Green and Stalk & Spade store concepts—ironically, in the same building where he launched his eponymous Steele Fitness business that would later merge into the Snap Fitness empire that Smiley helmed years ago.
Paco & Lime will offer five times the number of filling choices as a typical Chipotle Mexican Grill, including more vessel options for delivering a potent Mexican food fix such as salads, tostadas and even nachos, as well as an array of plant-based and seafood protein options. “Paco & Lime will be more vibrant, more alive than Chipotle with nearly endless options. Plus, we’ll have frozen margaritas,” teased Smiley.
And as he has done successfully with his other fast casual health brands, Paco & Lime will really seek to turn itself into a lifestyle brand—offering an array of events for the community from outdoor pre-lunch fitness and yoga classes to kids and family nights.
Steele Smiley might not yet be a household name, but many who have known him for years and have followed his unabated trajectory of success believe he could become the Howard Schultz of fast-food or the Jack Dorsey of healthy eating—reframing, and then dominating, a large slice of America’s $150 billion a year restaurant chain sector with a mix of innovative product offerings, digital integration and marketing flair.
Speaking of flair, the Paco & Lime branding will sport a hot pink Mexican Day of the Dead sugar skull immersed in a sea of black. I asked Smiley if this was some sort of shot across the bow at Chipotle’s saggy and semi-wilted maroon pepper logo.
“No not at all,” shot back Smiley. “The smiling skull is my modern-day take on my grandpa’s smiley face.”