Nick Marsh ’90 graduated from the University with a degree in history and no job. Today, the longtime entrepreneur is CEO of Chop’t Creative Salad Company, a quickly expanding casual restaurant chain that recently opened up its 51st shop in Princeton, N.J.
“Princeton is an awesome market!” said Marsh. “It literally checked every box on our real estate analysis” with its exercise and health conscious community, proximity to a university and high school, and large population of local businesses.
Founded in 2001, Chop’t was an early leader in the health-focused, fast-casual industry with its emphasis on fresh and flavorful ingredients. “The lines were literally out the door and down the block,” said Marsh. “Better tastes better” was one of their first slogans, and the company has lived and breathed that motto ever since.
The salad-centric company was not Marsh’s first foray in the restaurant business, however.
After Princeton, Marsh worked in banking in Chicago, then moved to consulting. “First, I learned how to put on a suit and go to work,” said Marsh. “Then I learned that I didn’t really want to work for anybody else.”
So, he created a coffee shop and bar called Xando in 1994 with his brother and a few friends. “We had no restaurant experience, no true business experience. I certainly learned that passion, enthusiasm, and hard work can get you a little of the way down the road,” said Marsh.
Xando merged with the fast-casual restaurant chain Cosi and expanded to another 100 locations in the four years that Marsh was at the helm. After leaving, Marsh was interested in investing in another restaurant chain.
He had three criteria. “It had to be all about the food, on trend, and pointed in the healthier, better direction,” said Marsh. He was also concerned with the operating model, looking for a chain that was scalable. “Most important, the founders had to be super over-the-top passionate, creative, and innovative people.”
“I knew immediately that it met all three criteria,” Marsh said of Chop’t.
Marsh’s career is very different from what he expected as an undergraduate. “You never know what’s out there. The investment banking and consulting companies have this massive infrastructure for getting on campus and recruiting,” said Marsh. “But there are so many other small, medium, even large size companies doing different things that may or may not be super interesting if you get out and explore a little bit.”
“Don’t be afraid to take some risks early in your career,” he advised. “Worst case, you learn something and move on.”
“When I first got involved in the restaurant space, it was not an industry that got a lot of attention or investment,” said Marsh. That has changed. There are now “unbelievable numbers of people trying to provide this idea of better food in a quick serve environment.”
Still, “fast casual chains are still a drop in the buck in comparison to the big restaurant chains,” said Marsh. “The most important things I do really relate to people and culture. Chop’t is at such a critical moment.”
When Chop’t first began, “You couldn’t open a restaurant that just sold salad,” said Marsh. “The concept was started by two guys thinking differently and pushing the envelope and doing something that other people weren’t doing.”
Marsh, and the rest of Chop’t, continues to “try to maintain and build on that” today.
One of their key outlets for creativity today is their destination salads. “Tony and Colin [Chop’t’s founders] will actually travel around to a different part of the country or a different part of world and build salads with authentic ingredients …They stretch your expectation of what might be in a salad.” Right now, it’s destination Mexico.
“I think so much in business comes down to having a vision and being able to convince a group of other people to come along,” said Marsh. “You’re trying to build a consensus around ideas.”