At the start of 2020, the Louisville-based salad chain Green District had just two locations, but co-founders Jordan Doepke and Chris Furlow could feel the brand’s cult status growing.
Customers came in and suggested expansion into places like Wisconsin and Knoxville, Tennessee. Doepke and Furlow were in agreement to an even greater degree — the duo dream of being the biggest fast casual in the country and then going all out in the world. But the early years also taught them just how much time, energy and capital building a restaurant can take.
The good news for Doepke and Furlow is that they’re not the only ones who believe in the Green District. Several years ago, the co-founders established a relationship with Barry Brauch, the former CEO of American Founders Bank. He helped Doepke and Furlow secure a downtown Louisville location with little underwriting and fell in love with the concept. So when Brauch co-founded Castellan Group, a private equity firm aimed at investing in “entrepreneurs building powerful brands,” he knew where to look.
Castellan and Green District both agree on where the chain should be in the next decade, and it’s not just about being a group of regional restaurants.
“It was really lucky for him to fall in love with our product and what it was because I would say at the time Green District was cool, but that’s nothing compared to what he is now,” says Doepke, who launched the brand with Furlow in 2017 after meeting while coaching football.
Despite this investment which took place just weeks before the outbreak of COVID, Green District has since expanded to 12 locations, including locations in Indiana, Ohio and Colorado. The co-founders plan to reach 25 stores by the end of this year and 100 by 2026. The menu features 12 select salad options (also available as wraps), three cereal bowls and a wrap option to create yourself. These items can be garnished with a choice of 17 dressings.
Furlow attributes some of Green District’s recent success to the nature of the pandemic. It changed consumers’ understanding of the technology by about five years, the co-founder said. It has pushed customers into app sign-ups, online ordering and personalization, areas where the salad chain has thrived through its partnership with food technology solution Lunchbox. The environment also forced the concept to slow down its processes and evaluate. The company decided to base its culture on heritage, integrity and character, and to develop its business through three key pillars: salads, employees and communities.
Over the past two and a half years, Green District has found the right people to help it grow, including Lance Little, Midwest Market President (June 2020); Chuck Slaughter, Chief Technology Officer (December 2020); Robert Rice, Vice President of Operations and Food Innovation (January 2021); and Tim Spong, President of Western Market (September 2021). The CVs of these executives are also recognizable. Spong worked at Chipotle for nearly 12 years, leading the security and risk, supply chain and operations departments. Kathy Ryback, who is a financial controller, was previously chief financial officer of Sterling Restaurants, Moe’s largest franchisee.
“I think [the pandemic] slowing things down because I don’t feel like having 33 leases currently signed is slowing down from the original plan,” Doepke says. “I think it was more in slow motion, and I think what I mean by that is you allow your people to have more freedom and to work in a better culture and a better environment and you become more productive. We really value productivity over activity.