There are 35 La Prep restaurants dotted around the GTA, yet Naveen Seth’s neighbours still scratch their heads when he talks about his newly owned brand.
The CEO was, for the last 18 years, the master franchisee for the sandwich, salad, soup and assorted goods resto. He came into the business in 2000, bringing La Prep to Toronto from Montreal and rolling out stores across the market, until finally buying the brand from its Quebec owners in November. “As a master franchisee, I felt the brand had not evolved with the times,” says Seth. “People’s perception of freshness has changed over the years. A change was needed in the [store] concept… so I made a proposal to the owners and asked them to sell to me so I could evolve the brand.”
Naturally, when faced with surprisingly low brand awareness and a fickle market with shifting consumer wants, the decision to rebrand and reconfigure the store and menu was made. Before touching any of its existing restaurants, the CEO has begun breaking ground on five locations with the new Social Bistro name. It’s doing away with the former Daily Fresh tag, replacing it with a moniker that speaks more directly to its main function: to be a community space for friends, families and colleagues to gather for food.
Before, the Daily Fresh tag indicated La Prep’s efforts to regularly prepare set menu items, but “now people want to build and design their own meals, they don’t want to be forced upon with meals that are just designed by us,” says Seth. “And then I thought, Daily Fresh really means something to us, but does it mean something to our customer? It could mean a grocery store, a health store, or a restaurant, but no one would have a clear message. We needed to be more clear about who we are, so there’s no guesswork.”
The very first La Prep Social Bistro is in Richmond Hill and comes with a completely new look. Eating is more communal with 14-seat, harvest-style tables for people to share, alongside more private areas. The design is more contemporary with new light fixtures, black painted walls, dark furniture, marble tops and clean lines. Even the kitchen equipment has gone through an overhaul, with Seth saying that they’ve done away with using microwaves and panini grills, the latter becoming a trend in lunch resto kitchens. It’s replaced them with heavy-duty chef ovens used by premium hotels, upping the food quality and providing more fresh options.
La Prep worked with its long-time design firm Interior Resources on the store look, while Clue Branding developed its refreshed ID. The next Social Bistro opens Aug. 9 in Burlington, while three more are waiting for city permits to begin construction, says Seth. A total of ten locations are set to open over the next year.
But beyond the bistro concept, La Prep is also opening doors to a new grab-and-go option for hurried diners. The Fast and Fresh concept maintains the restaurant’s previous “fresh” messaging, but is packaged as a convenient kiosk and can be placed inside the Social Bistros or in mall food courts, office buildings, airports, and university campuses with smaller footprints and consumers that are looking for a quick, healthy bite before flights or between classes and meetings.
The company has also invested in a 7,500 square foot kitchen, where an exec R&D chef and his culinary team are tasked with developing offerings to help it compete against the likes of Aroma (its most direct competitor in terms of menu offering, says Seth) and Freshii (for its soups and salads), as well as Second Cup and Starbucks (for its selection of coffee and desserts). “One thing that is unique about our model is that we don’t just offer coffee, but also [a range of] food. There aren’t many that do all of that under one umbrella,” says the CEO.
This isn’t the first time the company has struggled to accurately communicate its model. About a decade ago, La Prep was rebranded from its founding name Cafe Supreme. In 2010, it rebranded to step away from being seen as simply a coffee shop, because it was so much more, says Seth. “The reason we changed our name was because we realized we were misleading customers and landlords by calling ourselves Cafe Supreme. When we looked at our brand, we realized that 70% of our sales were generated from food. So we were not truly a cafe, [even then] we were a bistro.”
Next up, says Seth, the restaurant will launch a new mobile app to make order and pick-up faster and easier. The new app will include its loyalty program and allow customers to order before they arrive to avoid lining up. It’s also looking to balance its meal options to cater to those who don’t live to one extreme of only eating junk food or healthy items when dining out, he says. “I’ve always believed in balance. And that’s what my approach has been with this new La Prep concept. You come and have a healthy meal, but you can also indulge in cakes. People can find their own balance. And that’s the new direction with this.”