How Tropical Smoothie is giving back during the COVID-19 crisis

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to shut down life around the US, that hasn’t stopped some essential businesses from giving back and helping in the fight.

Tropical Smoothie Cafe announced in March that it would donate 100,000 smoothies nationwide to health care workers and first-responders during the COVID-19 outbreak. The initiative, which started around March 15, is well on its way to meeting the goal nearly a month later. Charles Watson, Tropical Smoothie CEO, told Ladders the company has given away more than 92,000 smoothies of its goal to date across its 850 statewide locations.

“The program started like all great programs. The franchisees came up with the idea and started giving away smoothies,” Watson told Ladders Monday. “I don’t know if we’ll stop there – we’ll probably keep going with it.”

Tropical Smoothie donates smoothies to health care workers in Florida.
Tropical Smoothie donates smoothies to health care workers in Florida.

Watson, who was officially named CEO in January, said Tropical Smoothie prides itself on being one of the first dining facilities to close its doors at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the basis for its operations — fast-casual — made the company able to move forward and continue to operate during the outbreak.

Despite sales being down 50%, measures were implemented to help franchisees move forward during the epidemic like cutting royalties in half — from 6% to 3% — and pushing the pedal on future initiatives like curbside delivery, which Tropical Smoothie unveiled in 10 days’ time despite it being scheduled for Q4.

“This is a very difficult time for our franchisees. One of our thoughts was how do we support our franchises mentally as well as finically,” Watson said. “When you give up yourself and when you give back, your brain releases all those feel-good chemicals. We’ve had great success with franchises really getting outside of themselves and giving back to the local communities.”

The measures Tropical Smoothie took align largely with how Watson operates as a CEO. He’s someone who prides himself on acronyms and likes to keep things focused around “trust,” which he broke down as such:

T: Transparent – “Being an open book.”
R: Responsible. “It’s work, it’s not a vacation. We have to be responsible.”
U: Unique. “It speaks to how we are today. I don’t care if you wear Crocs. If you are the greatest programmer, I want you. Allowing people to be unique.”
S: Service-oriented. “It doesn’t matter what you sell – we’re in the hospitality business.”
T: Tenacious. “It’s about having no quit in you.”

As for the future outlook, Watson believes Tropical Smoothie will be fine when the COVID-19 crisis comes to an end but he expects to see some major changes hitting the restaurant industry with a new normal coming in the next year.

“We’re not just going to open the doors and dining rooms are open with everyone coming in at the same time. I think it’ll be a phased approach as we’re seeing on the news,” said Watson.

“For restaurants, it’s about having the order modes of dinner available where third-party delivery or people are able to pick up. You’ve gotta have those capabilities and I think those will become more necessary. There were many restaurants that could drive their business without those order modes. I think that’s going to be table stakes going forward for the restaurant business.”