If you’re looking for something quick and easy to eat but don’t want to feel the greasy after-effects of actual fast food, then the solution very well may be a fast casual chain restaurant. Places like Chipotle, Fazoli’s, Panera Bread, and Noodles and Company are a step above your typical fast food chain and usually offer a wide selection of food you don’t necessarily have to feel regretful about eating. Noodles and Company, specifically, offers so many different menu items, inspired by food from all over the world, that it’s pretty impressive the chain can get it out to you so fast. Really, whatever you’re craving, there’s probably a Noodles and Company dish that’s perfect for you.
But, the untold truth of Noodles and Company is that the fast casual chain has had many ups and downs over the years, and they’ve come quite a long way since they first started out. Even if you’ve never eaten at one of the chain’s locations, it’s fascinating to learn about how they got started, how their menu has changed, and how they almost didn’t make it. Yes, really.
This is the untold truth of Noodles and Company.
This is the vision of the chain
Noodles and Company seems to consider itself a pioneer of the fast casual chain. According to their website, the restaurant started in 1995 "with a simple concept — serve fresh food fast. Something that was virtually unheard of at the time." And since then, the vision for the chain became clear. Noodles and Company has aimed to serve noodle dishes from around the world. Be they American, Italian, Chinese, or from any other corner of the world, you can rest assured that Noodles and Company offers it.
And since they first opened, not much has changed in those two areas. Noodles and Company is still a fast casual chain where you can get you your food quickly and easily without having to go through a drive-thru or feeling super bloated afterward. Additionally, the menu at Noodles and Company continues to offer dishes inspired by meals from all over, and they bring it to you with convenience and a low price. What’s not to love?
The company almost didn’t make it
Noodles and Company knew exactly what it wanted to do when the company started out and had a clear mission for what they wanted to bring their customers. However, just one year after Noodles and Company first opened, they almost had to shut down. Yes, even though the fast-casual chain was brand new, they struggled a lot at the beginning, and according to Inc., a negative review in 1996 almost put them out of business.
Specifically, a bad review of the chain’s new Madison, Wisconsin, location, as well as some profit losses, led to the establishment nearly shutting down. "We were in the basement for sure," Aaron Kennedy, founder and then-CEO of Noodles and Company, told Inc. Fortunately, the chain was able to change up the restaurant’s decor, offerings, and prices, which allowed Noodles and Company to survive yet another day. Still, the fact that one bad review almost meant the death of Noodles and Company so early on is pretty fascinating, especially when you consider how far they’ve come since then.
The restaurant appeals to different diets
It’s no secret that low-carb diets like the paleo diet and other diets eliminating carbs, grains, bread, and the like are kind of all the rage. Then you have people who are gluten-free, who just want to avoid wheat products. Because of all of that, it makes sense that Noodles and Company would have to find a way to appeal to those customers before completely losing them to the healthy lifestyles they’ve adopted. So, the restaurant decided to introduce some healthier versions pasta such as zucchini noodles and cauliflower gnocchi, and it definitely worked.
As QSR Magazine reported, Noodles and Company was strategic in their appeal to different diets. Specifically, they explained they had a few new tactics to bring in more customers, and one was perfect for anyone who couldn’t eat traditional noodles. "The first is the continued differentiation of our concept to appeal to a broad range of lifestyles, convenience, and dietary needs," Dave Boennighausen, CEO, said. Offering healthier alternatives to traditional pastas definitely allowed Noodles and Company to stay relevant, that’s for sure.
Noodles and Company has won a ton of awards
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Noodles and Company has won a ton of awards. Yes, the food and service are great, but they’ve also won awards for being a fantastic place to work for all kinds of people, and that’s a pretty impressive accomplishment in and of itself. Noodles and Company has won Forbes Magazine’s 100 Most Trustworthy Companies in America award, Eat This Not That’s 35 Hottest Healthy Restaurants in America award, Parents Magazine’s Top Family-Friendly Restaurants award, and Denver Business Journal’s Most Admired CEO Award just to name a few.
Obviously, winning awards doesn’t necessarily mean that Noodles and Company is the absolute best fast casual chain out there, but considering the fact that they almost didn’t make it past their first year as a business, it is pretty impressive. And clearly, there are worse places you can go when you need a meal that’s quick, easy, cost-effective, and tasty.
This is one of the most popular menu items
With a name like Noodles and Company, you would assume that most of the food on the restaurant’s menu involves, well, noodles. And it definitely does revolve around different types of pasta, that’s for sure. But the chain still adds new menu items, and one of their newest items has actually turned out to be their most popular.
Dave Boennighausen, the CEO, told QSR Magazine that there was one menu item Noodles and Company recently added that already made a huge difference for customers. The new stuffed three-cheese tortelloni, made with caramelized onions, mozzarella, Parmesan, and ricotta cheeses, has been a big hit.
"For years, stuffed pasta has been the most requested item from our guests," Boenninghausen said. "While it’s still too early to determine the ultimate sales-driving impact the Tortelloni will have on the business, we have been very pleased with the initial results we’re seeing, particularly on the frequency of our core guest." Clearly, the stuffed tortelloni is a popular dish at Noodles and Company’s, and it’s understandable why — it sounds amazing!
Noodles and Company values diversity
As Noodles and Company is an establishment that values many different cultures from around the world, it makes sense that they would also make an effort to honor the differences people have, especially amongst their employees. And that’s exactly what they’ve done over the years.
Yes, Noodles and Company has a super-impressive track record for valuing diversity and making sure their employees feel appreciated. Specifically, they were named by Forbes as a winner of America’s Best Employers for Diversity Award 2021 and America’s Best Employers for Women Award 2021. Additionally, they earned the Women in the Lead Certification because of the company’s focus on women-empowering initiatives for their female employees.
Finally, Noodles and Company partnered with the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance to teach "cultural intelligence" to their employees. The company not only wants to make their customers feel appreciated and served well but their workers, too, which we love.
Noodles and Company really struggled at one point
If you’ve ever eaten at a Noodles and Company, then you probably know that the chain has a lot to offer customers. But as nice as the establishment might look on the outside and as tasty as the food might be, that doesn’t mean they haven’t struggled with money and even just staying open and running.
In addition to the first year of the business being pretty rough, Noodles and Company has also really struggled financially ever since 2014. Specifically, their stock plummeted due to an over-crowded fast-food market, they follow a tricky business model that requires too many employees, and they had a pretty infamous data breach in 2016. All of that really culminated in 2017 when the fast casual chain ended up shutting down 55 locations across the United States due to profit losses. Clearly, Noodles and Company has really been through a lot, and it’s kind of amazing they’re still in business today.
Noodles and Company has been pretty successful and has turned the company around
Since their scandals and financial downfall, Noodles and Company has climbed their way back to the top. Considering the fact that a global pandemic shut down a ton of restaurants, it’s impressive that Noodles and Company managed to stay open.
According to QSR Magazine, Noodles and Company maintained 70% of their pre-COVID sales for in-store orders as of mid-2021 and even maintained 90% of their digital sales as well. That alone is super impressive, but CEO Dave Boenninghausen told the magazine that he thought their digital sales could do even better and that Noodles and Company could "more effectively utilize our digital assets and data to better engage with our guests in our new rewards program."
Clearly, Noodles and Company has come a long way since their near-collapse in 2017, but how exactly did they make that happen? Boennighausen explained that Noodles and Company’s bounce-back was due in large part to the team coming together. "The first thing that we did was really reengage our team around our core values," he said. "We had to become much more operations-focused in our decision making, and then start going out and making tough decisions we knew would maybe not be the most popular decisions, but would pay out in the long term in terms of helping our operations execute better." Clearly, Noodles and Company worked hard to get back on their feet, and their efforts have paid off.
Noodles and Company has launched new deals
Perhaps another huge factor in Noodles and Company’s success has been their commitment to helping their customers feel like they’re getting the most for their money and not being ripped off. And one way that they’ve done that — and done it well — is by offering exclusive deals and a new rewards program to their customers. Specifically, Noodles and Company started offering exclusive deals — like free delivery, free entrees, and more — just by becoming a Noodles Rewards member, which is completely free to do.
Stacey Pool, chief marketing officer at Noodles and Company, told The Daily Sentinel that the new deals and offers were meant to make life easier for loyal customers. For the months of August and September 2021, Noodles and Company offered new deals every week to rewards members, something Pool was especially passionate about. "Our whole team understands that resuming back to everyday life will not be easy, so, we want to help make the process a little simpler by giving back to our loyal fans and rewards members. Life is a balancing act, but finding a fresh and convenient meal for you and your family shouldn’t be," Pool said.
Honestly, those rewards sound like an easy way to score a great deal at Noodles and Company, and it was super smart of the company to launch the program.
Noodles and Company changed their production
After Noodles and Company turned their dire situation around, they weren’t looking to slow down anytime soon. Instead, the company continued to innovate, and one of the ways they changed things up was to alter the way they produced and cooked their food, which helped them see an increase in earnings.
"Our performance was primarily driven by realized labor model efficiencies through our kitchen of the future initiatives," said CFO Carl Lukach, "particularly a reduction in front-of-house hours in addition to sales leverage." Additionally, Lukach explained that Noodles and Company’s new steamer equipment allowed for the food to be a lot more consistent and of better quality. "By virtue of being faster, the food’s actually hotter," CEO Dave Boennighausen said. "So, you actually get a better experience from the guest perspective."
By changing their production model, Noodles and Company got to help their customers get the best meal possible while also saving time and money. It was really a win-win.
Noodles and Company locations are getting smaller
If you’ve been inside of a Noodles and Company recently, you might have noticed that the fast casual chain isn’t all that crowded. And while that might have led you to believe that the chain isn’t doing well, that isn’t necessarily the case. On the contrary, it appears that a typical Noodles and Company restaurant might just be too big for the chain’s needs.
In fact, according to Biz Journals, Noodles and Company has decided that they will start shifting to smaller storefronts in 2021 and beyond. Previously, most Noodles and Company locations were in spaces larger than 2,000 square feet, but after the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way Americans order and consume food, they decided all future spaces could probably be about 1,500 square feet or even as small as 1,000 square feet.
"We’ve had a three- or four-month preview of how well the restaurants do without much dine-in traffic," CEO Dave Boennighausen said. "I almost hate to say this, but I think we’re going to look back two to three years from now and say, ‘Covid was terrible, but it cemented our culture and prepared us for growth.’" So if you notice the chain locations getting smaller, it’s not an accident.
Noodles and Company is innovating
These days, it isn’t uncommon to totally love a restaurant without ever having stepped foot inside. With food delivery services taking over, more people are ordering food directly to them, and that’s something Noodles and Company has noticed and built upon. In 2021, they launched ghost kitchens — fully digital spaces to order food and have it delivered or ready for pickup without ever sitting down at a Noodles and Company to eat.
Though first tested in the Chicago area in May 2021, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more Noodles and Company ghost kitchens expand, as it’s really boosted their business. "We’re excited to make our ghost kitchen debut in a market in which Noodles & Company is already a staple for existing guests and offer a new way for guests to enjoy our noodle dishes," Stacey Pool, chief marketing officer, said in a press release. "This is integral to our overall digital strategy as we work to develop faster service through our digital channels with lower overhead and labor costs, all without investing in a physical brick-and-mortar location. And because our food travels so well, guests never have to choose between quality and convenience."
As time goes on, don’t be surprised if you see ghost kitchens taking over, and remember that Noodles and Company was at the forefront.
Noodles and Company continues to expand
Clearly, Noodles and Company has been through a lot over the years. They’ve faced scandals, financial hardships, and honestly more drama than an episode of Gossip Girl. But they’ve still managed to continuously come out on top in the fast casual game, and that trajectory continues as they continue to expand widely in the future.
"We continue to believe in our opportunity to ultimately operate at least 1,500 restaurants domestically supported by at least 7 percent system or unit growth in 2022 and soon thereafter reaching an annual growth rate of at least 10 percent," Dave Boennighausen said, according to QSR Magazine. What’s more, Noodles and Company is specifically looking to expand to the West Texas and Southern New Mexico regions, so if you live there and have been waiting for a Noodles and Company to head your way, you just might be getting lucky soon.