With a tenacious spirit, Sharon Mays works to give fast food a place at the table.
By Madelyn Geyer, Photo by Alison Narro.
Despite the popularity and longevity, no one will ever see a fast food place as a Michelin-star restaurant. But what if fast food didn’t mean bag-soaking burgers and fries? What if it could be truly healthy offerings and wonderful service? Sharon Mays, the founder of Baby Greens, isn’t here to give you the history of fast food. She’s here to rewrite its future. The drive-through salad restaurant is redefining the mindset toward fast food, one salad at a time.
Beginning as a pre-med major in college who hadn’t tried Taco Bell until she was 20, Mays was an unexpected candidate for a wildly successful and revolutionary career in the restaurant industry. Her path is beautiful and winding, fraught with victories, challenges and a stranger who unknowingly changed everything.
Creating Baby Greens
Though I was pre-med at Texas A&M, I eventually found I wanted to work in the music industry. I switched and got a BS in Public Relations with a double minor in marketing and management. Ended up leaving work in radio because, to be very direct, I got tired of getting passed over. I realized they were never going to give me a chance, so I walked away without knowing what I was going to do. I then took a job working at the IRS.
Due to an anthrax scare post-9/11, security made it very difficult to leave the building to get food. The cafeteria had the saddest little salad bar, which was horrible for me as a vegetarian. I was miserable, so to keep myself sane I would think of different business ideas that I could do. One of those ideas was “drive-through salad restaurant.”
The big moment came on my dinner break.
My dinner break was the marker the day was almost over, and a random man always took his break at the same time. I didn’t know him, but I would just sit there and watch him eat the same two meals every day: burger and fries, club sandwich and fries. I would watch him eat and know that when it was over, I had two and a half hours left of work.
One day, he comes in with a salad from Wendy’s. That meant on his own, he went through the security checkpoints to get in and out of the building and traveled all the way to a Wendy’s—while also using most of his break—to get a salad. That was the moment I literally got up out of that cafeteria and ran to my desk. This was my sign to move forward with my idea. I just remember going back to my desk and thinking, “Okay, we’ve got to get out of here right now and do this.” So I left the IRS and worked at Chipotle as the marketing manager for about a year to learn the fast food industry. Though I loved it, I knew that if I stayed I would never give Baby Greens a try. I left and opened up in 2004.
What happened in 2009?
[That year] actually started out as an amazing year for Baby Greens. I had three locations and everything was coming together. When I had the idea for it, I always wanted Baby Greens to be a franchise. Even though that was what I wanted, what I came to realize was I hadn’t really planned for that. I was getting calls from real estate developers and retailers to expand. But when the business is coming in like a fire hose and there’s just me on the receiving end of it, there’s no way to deal with it. I didn’t come to fully appreciate that lack of infrastructure meant it could never become a franchise until that infrastructure was put into place. There just wasn’t enough of me to go around.
Once I realized that I couldn’t get there, I decided that, as risky of a move as it was, I was going to close a well-performing business in order to save it. It was terrifying and heartbreaking, but when you’re the boss, your job is to do what’s best for the company. I got it all buttoned up and closed, but in my mind, I always knew I wanted to reopen Baby Greens.
The path back to re-opening
In the end, it was timing that once again brought me back to Baby Greens. I ran for city council a couple of years ago and didn’t win, but it changed me. It felt like I couldn’t do things that didn’t resonate with me anymore. I said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m just going to walk towards what makes me happy.”
My dad called me one day and said, “When are you going to reopen Baby Greens? You need to do this right now.” I agreed with him, but I didn’t have any money, a location or any help. My dad gave me money to reopen. In about six weeks, those other missing pieces found their way to me. It seemed like, once again, I was putting myself on a path to say, “I don’t know where I’m going to go, but I’m just going to put myself out there and see what happens.” So I came back to Baby Greens and knew this was the place I’m supposed to be
After reopening, what did you learn?
I learned what I wanted my company to be about, and also how to plan differently. Learned how to set myself up to say, “I might not have these things today, but I’m going to at least put myself on a path that when the opportunity comes up for these things to come together, I’m ready.”
Even had a keener eye on how to notice when the opportunities arrived. I always told myself that if I never reopened Baby Greens, it would be okay because I was proud of the work that I did. I already started making peace with the fact that that chapter may be about to close for good, but that chapter said, “No, we’re not done yet.”
What was your relationship to fast food growing up?
Fast food was not a part of my regular makeup as a young person at all. We never ate fast food unless we were on a road trip. My mom and dad were make-dinner-every-night kind of parents. I also wasn’t interested in cooking as a young person. I never picked that up until maybe two or three years before I started Baby Greens.
As I became a young professional and working in marketing and PR, I was always on the go. And so, like most people, fast food became a part of my life because I just didn’t have time and I wasn’t a very good cook. When I went vegetarian, that was when I first started learning how to cook. At the end of the ’90s, there were no other options or food trucks like there are now. So fast food became a very necessary part of my life.
How does your background in marketing play a role in how you run your business?
I really sat down and discovered the reasons why people don’t eat better food. 1. Healthy food is too expensive. 2. It’s difficult to get to. 3. It doesn’t typically taste great. 4. The ingredients are baffling. 5. People are afraid they’re not going to feel full at the end of it. When I came up with the idea for Baby Greens, five pillars were a part of what went into creating that brand: to be affordable, to be easy, to taste amazing, to have ingredients that most people have at least heard or seen before and to be really filling.
Changing people’s relationship with fast food
I created Baby Greens because everyone deserves good food and good service. Everyone decided that it’s okay for us to get bad food and mediocre service and we’ll keep coming back. People are paying their hard-earned money for this food, so it should be good. Just because you might be a person who has limited time or limited money, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a delicious meal and a giant smile. That’s not something for the haves. That’s for all of us.
So that’s my number one thing, is that Baby Greens is for everyone. Some of my favorite customers are men in work trucks, because if I can think of a category that probably didn’t think they were going to be into a drive-through salad restaurant, that’s at the top of the list. I very much want to embrace the fact that we’re a fast food restaurant. People say all the time that Baby Greens isn’t a fast food restaurant. I say yes, it is. Instead of us trying to say, “No, we’re not, our food is too good,” well maybe fast food is supposed to be good food.
All jobs have honor and dignity
There’s this conversation about raising the minimum wage, and the thing that is so disheartening to me is when people say, “Working at fast food was never supposed to be a career.” Like somehow fast food employees are less than or they’ve somehow made a mistake. I think that is such a classist attitude. First and foremost, I think all jobs deserve honor and respect. Why couldn’t someone decide they wanted to work in fast food forever? I have a great company. My employees want to stay there a long time. Our company mission is to spread joy, and our customers love to come and see us. We serve happiness. This idea that because someone who works at a fast food restaurant is an unskilled laborer is just not true. I would be happy for someone to come in and see how much skill goes into this food.
Everyone should be good at their job and be able to make a living.
Everyone has something that they want to do, and it’s not okay to judge someone’s happiness. Maybe if we stop looking down on people who wanted to work in the fast food industry and telling them this isn’t a “forever” job, maybe they would feel differently about it. By saying these are unskilled laborers is also a great way for people to decide it’s okay for the food to be cheap because it’s “just lettuce” or “just salads.” I find myself in a unique situation to bring that argument forward because people can’t trash my food and say, “Oh, it’s just greasy burgers and fries.” We serve, very successfully, beautiful food that’s delicious.
I want to reclaim the fast food label. We’re not saying we’re the “un-fast food.” We are, and this is what fast food can look like.
Goals for the future
We are in the middle of a brand evolution right now. I want Baby Greens to be the place that people go to for delicious food on the go. Invested in smart fridges at the end of 2019 that are contactless grab-and-go vending machine options. I want us to move into that more so we are continuing to expand on what people expect from a fast food restaurant. Again, changing people’s expectations that fresh, delicious food should not be a treat. That should be something that you roll into an everyday kind of thing, and that should be affordable to everyone.
We have rising costs, but I’m trying very hard not to raise our prices because I want us to be accessible to everyone. I’m going back through and kind of evolving our business operations so that we can continue to overdeliver on that promise and expand on what it means to be Baby Greens. Ultimately the thing that we’re always going to be doing is providing fresh, delicious food to people on the go.
A legacy in the making
I’m still very committed to growing Baby Greens. From a business perspective, I want to spark that change in what people think they could and should have from fast food options. I want people to know that good food is for everyone. Also that having a great place to work is also for everyone. I hope that other entrepreneurs know that just because someone’s been doing something longer than you doesn’t mean they’re doing it best. It doesn’t mean that you couldn’t do it better, because just about every major business started out as somebody’s small business. I try to have the idea of “Why couldn’t it be me?” I hope that more entrepreneurs say, “Who’s to say the next great idea isn’t going to come from me?” Whoever the “me” is, it’s going to come from somewhere.
Fun Fact: Sharon Mays was Austin Woman magazine’s April 2009 cover woman.