Fresh Alternatives LLC
Sometimes people are meant to fulfill certain roles in a career path that has more or less chosen them; and that is the case with Dawn Voss, now CEO of Fresh Alternatives LLC (Crispers). The fast-paced, casual Florida-based restaurant chain is now satisfying palates across the state. “I’ve always been in this industry, since I was 14 years old,” shares Dawn.
As a Florida-native, Dawn grew up catering to the tourism industry. “I started scooping ice cream before I was even in high school,” she recalls. “I worked in the restaurant business throughout college while I majored in sociology. I wanted to be a social worker and I truly believed that was the path I was going to take. I wanted to help others.”
The Path to Success
Dawn’s knack for customer service and familiarity with a functioning restaurant quickly gained recognition. “Shortly after college, a customer I waited on praised the job I did and asked me to come work for McDonalds,” she recounts. “I thought it was a good opportunity so I started as an assistant manager. It was a good fit for my energy and interest. I loved the pace and amount of interaction with people, both customers and employees.”
Dawn remained with McDonald’s for 12 years before she left to become a consultant and later an operations director for Togo’s in California. “I was constantly moving, from coast to coast and about every 18 months with McDonalds,” she explains. “I wanted some control over my life and where I lived and when I moved.”
Shortly thereafter, she was recruited by Pepsi to work at Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), a move that brought her back to Florida. “Soon after I started, the company was reorganized and I ended up in human resources, but I quickly found out that wasn’t a role I enjoyed,” Dawn continues. “My heart was really in operations. From there I was recruited by Wendy’s. I had been in contact with Wendy’s in the past, but there wasn’t a position that was the right fit. This time, though, when I sat down with the CEO, he said, ‘Dawn, this time we’re going to have a job that you want.’”
Over the next nine years, Dawn managed Wendy’s divisions in Atlanta and eventually 500 franchise and company restaurants in her home state. “For years I was following other people’s ideas and I had the support of lots of staff members,” adds Dawn. “In 2005, I took a job with Noodles & Company out of Boulder, Colo., and for the first time, I had more responsibility for shaping a brand. I had to lead the development of what was going on the menu, as well as many other departments.”
Dawn spent seven years with Noodles & Company in her first fast-casual restaurant experience. “Colorado is on average a very healthy state,” mentions Dawn. “I worked on better and fresher ingredients and started developing systems to provide guest feedback on the quality, flavor and healthiness of the food.”
A Better Way to Dine
After several years developing healthier alternatives, as well as other innovations and process improvements and building a team for Noodles & Company and too many below-zero Colorado winters, Dawn was eager to move home to Florida.
“In March 2013, I got a call from Crispers,” she shares. “I was familiar with Crispers, because it’s a Florida-based, regional chain and one of the first in the fast-casual field.”
Crispers was already a well-established brand, founded by the husband and wife team of Bill and Vanessa Whittaker in 1989. “The chain needed some help leading the concept to a growth mode,” Dawn explains. “One area of concentration was picking new restaurant real estate, because a grocery store company owned Crispers for several years and they based locations on the same criteria they would a grocery store and it’s a very different business.”
After decades with some of the biggest names in the restaurant business, Dawn perfectly fit the bill to reorganize Crispers and take the organization to new heights. “I recognize the potential in fast-casual, because it’s one of the fastest growing market segments, but it’s also one of the smallest,” reveals Dawn. “It’s not quite as quick as QSR chains like Wendy’s or McDonalds, and it’s not the slower sit-down business like the casual restaurants like Chili’s or Ruby Tuesdays. What really sets fast-casual establishments apart is yes, the speed of the service, but more so the high-quality, fresh food.”
According to Dawn, one has to be focused on the quality of the offering. “If you’re not, customers will just as soon go to QSRs,” she elaborates. And Crispers has aimed to do just that – bringing the fastest, but also freshest and most flavorful, food to the table.
“I have a passion for this kind of food,” says Dawn. “I want to make Crispers even more of a craving and once I can do that, there’s no stopping our growth.”
Today, Crispers operates 28 locations throughout Florida, from Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale. “We’re based in Lakeland, Fla.,” notes Dawn. “We’re just a regional brand at this point, but we have about 750 to 800 employees.”
From Asian-style chopped salads to spiced-up roast beef sandwiches with Asiago cheese and red pepper pesto, margarita flatbread pizza, butternut squash and tomato bisque soup, Crispers serves it up. No matter the menu item, Dawn says it’s all about deciphering what guests want.
“Our biggest challenge is to understand what our customers want and how to grow more loyal guests, but I took this job because it was going to be a challenge,” she says. “I’m currently having weekly meetings with suppliers and our team to make decisions on the best items to serve and we’re always surveying, talking with and paying attention to customer comments.” If Fresh Alternatives LLC is going to continue to grow and expand its reach beyond Florida, there’s no better woman to lead the charge than Dawn Voss.