Like any successful enterprise, Good To Go Fresh works with a multi-faceted business plan. Unseen variables, changing consumer climates and fickle markets emphasize the need to be nimble.
So it makes sense that the family-owned Chicago-based purveyor of fresh foods puts perhaps its greatest interest in being flexible, especially when it comes to working with current and prospective customers.
“It’s all about being as flexible as possible for the customer,” says Good To Go Fresh principal Irv Kagan. “We do everything we can to meet their needs. The more we do that, the more likely we’ll get to work with them and keep them as a customer long-term. One of the things you want to do is build that relationship so you have a 10-, 15-, 20-year partnership with your customers. That’s good for the both of you.”
It has served Good To Go Fresh well so far. The company, which employs 40-plus people in a 14,000-sq-ft commissary that sits in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, was created nearly 30 years ago by a retired department store executive as Salads On The Go. Twelve years later, at the age of 80, he sold the business to Kagan and his wife, Ali.
In the time since, the Kagans have transformed the company’s menu from mostly salads to a wide array of sandwiches, wraps, sushi, yogurt parfaits, fresh-cut fruit, pinwheels, breakfast sandwiches, baked goods and more. In fact, Good To Go Fresh’s menu boasts 31 specialty sandwiches (Ham & Dill Havarti on Pretzel Roll and Jerry’s Cranberry Chicken Salad Sandwich to name a couple), 15 green salads, nine paninis, eight pasta salads, seven wraps and five varieties of pinwheel bites.
That large variety is not by accident. The company pays close attention to what consumers are eating at all times.
“Staying on top of food trends is big,” Kagan says. “It can be something as simple as grabbing takeout menus when we go to restaurants, either here in Chicago or elsewhere when we’re travelling. We want to see what people are offering and what people are eating. We try to stay on top of those trends to make our stuff as appealing as possible to not only our customers, but their consumers as well.”
Kagan says hiring people with solid culinary backgrounds has helped the company build and maintain its large and diverse menu. “That definitely helps,” he says. “Our staff has a number of people who have culinary backgrounds who have come from either organizations similar to ours or restaurants or other foodservice environments.”
And when Good To Go Fresh’s customers have a special request, the company prides itself in being able to nearly always being able to accommodate it. That, too, has helped create the varied menu.
“We’re always looking for new opportunities, whether they are in the retail environment, grocery shelf, anything. We’re always open to new ideas,” Kagan says. “Some of the products that we started making that became very popular have been at the request of customers. ‘Hey, can you do this? Can you do that?’ We really pride ourselves on the fact that 99 percent of the time the answer is going to be a yes.”
Good To Go Fresh’s items can be found in a variety of settings throughout the Chicago metro, downstate Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri. The company serves super markets, c-stores, train stations, airports, mom-and-pop shops, hospital cafeterias, school cafeterias and more with both branded and private label foods. “Really, anywhere were people congregate and are looking for a product like ours,” Kagan says. “We like to think of it as ‘captive audience cuisine.’ Anywhere where someone might want a fresh sandwich, but there aren’t a lot of choices. Where people are looking for a good product at a good value.”
But just providing a large number of fresh and prepared foods isn’t enough, Kagan says. The food has to look good and, in today’s climate, has to be made with a simple, wholesome ingredient list. Those two factors go hand-in-hand.
“There aren’t many barriers to entrance in our business,” Kagan says. “The way we try to separate ourselves from our competitors is through the quality and appearance of our food. We realize that people do eat with their eyes.”
If the food looks good, there’s a higher change that the consumer will make a purchase. If it then tastes good, there’s a higher chance they’ll return for more purchases. “Obviously you want to do everything you can to get them into the franchise and then keep them there as well. Once they burn out on something, it’s awfully hard to get them back, if not impossible. We’re constantly trying to come up with new things.”
The company says its approach to preparing its food is unique in that it uses minimal salt, no sugar and no cholesterol-laden ingredients. The meals are high in fiber and low in calories and fat. Most sauces and dressings are made with non-gat mayonnaise or non-fat yogurt.
“I think there is, particularly in the last year or so, a new emphasis on eating healthy,” Kagan says. “We’ve definitely seen the growth of the gluten-free area, the vegan area, halal, etc. In the past, people have not been that focused on what types of ingredients are going into food, how they’re prepared, what exactly they’re eating. I think that as the customer becomes more knowledgeable, it’s to our benefit because they grow to appreciate what we offer that much more.”
Kagan says much of the work in the company’s commissary is done by hand in an effort to achieve that fresh, homemade look that can set its products apart from some competitors. “We pride ourselves on the fact that our stuff is hand-made by a team of very well-trained and professional culinary people. It doesn’t look mass produced. It looks like something you could make in your own kitchen if you had the time and the resources. That’s part of the image we’re looking to portray to our customers.”
But it’s all tied together with the aforementioned flexibility and attention to the customer, Kagan says. The quality of the food can only take you so far. Combine that with an emphasis on the quality of customer service and it can help a business go to the next level.
“We pride ourselves in being extremely responsive to our customers,” Kagan says. “They all have my cell phone number. When we’re asked to do things, it’s not something where we’re just going to shoot something out. We’re going to take the time to make sure that it’s the high quality that reinforces the Good to go Fresh brand and the other products we’re producing.”
The end result is something along the lines of welcoming more and more people into the company’s proverbial board room.
“Anything we can do to help a potential customer grow their business,” Kagan says. “We’re very much a partner in their business and they’re a partner in ours.”
In addition to being USDA certified, Good To Go Fresh carries a somewhat rarer license. “We are also a certified Women’s Business Enterprise, both by the city of Chicago and state of Illinois,” Irv Kagan says.
Kagan’s wife, Ali, is the majority owner of Good To Go Fresh. The Women’s Business Development Center, through a partnership with the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, offers certification throughout nine Midwestern states. The certification can be a powerful marketing tool for expanding a company’s visibility, especially in male-dominated industries.
“It has definitely opened up some other doors for us and it allows us to compete for some of the minority-based contracts that are available,” Irv Kagan says.