Industry Superstars Navigating Healthy Change: Nicole Bushnell

Industry Superstars Navigating Healthy Change: Nicole Bushnell 11/12/18
By Anita Jones-Mueller, CEO of Healthy Dining

This interview is one of a six-part series, “Industry Superstars Navigating Healthy Change” presented as the keynote sessions at the California and Florida Restaurant Association Shows. Other Superstars featured in the series, include: Jonathan Rollo, Commander-in-Leaf, Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop; Erik Oberholtzer, Co-Founder, Tender Greens; Steven Goldstein, Chief Marketing Officer, Sharky’s Mexican Grill; Rich Wagner, President, Nature’s Table; and Maria Caranfa, Registered Dietitian and Global Nutrition and Food Policy Lead, Bloomin' Brands.

Anita Jones-Mueller: I’m thrilled to have Nicole Bushnell share her insights and passion for food and sustainability.
Nicole, I know Luna Grill is growing like crazy and you are busy! Tell us about yourself and Luna Grill:
Nicole: I’ve been in the restaurant industry since the age of 15, so the hospitality industry is a strong part of who I am. I spent the majority of my career heading up marketing departments for a variety of concepts from fine dining, to casual dining, to fast casual. I’m now the Vice President of Marketing for Luna Grill Restaurants, a fresh Mediterranean concept. Yes, we are growing! We are currently 47 restaurants primarily in Southern California with 8 locations in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. 2019 is going to be a very exciting year as we expand to new markets. 
As we continue to grow, we talk a lot about being more than just a restaurant brand. We are really a company focused on promoting purposeful living – both for our employees and our guests. It’s important to us to inspire our team members to have growth opportunities through their work and in their lives and we’ve seen many team members succeed into management.

Our guests’ opportunities for purposeful living are powered by the food that they eat at Luna. We really focus on the core values of our food, the quality of the ingredients that we serve, and being transparent about where the food is coming up. Whenever possible, we strive to provide sustainable, locally sourced produce for our guests. In 2015, we became the first non-full-service Mediterranean concept to become Real Food certified, which is an honor we hold dear to our hearts. Even as we grow past our current 47 locations, we are committed to retaining those key values that are important to us.

What’s important to your guests in terms of food and food quality?
Nicole: Our guests come from a wide range of demographics and generations, but the common thread is that they value real food and clean ingredients. That’s what’s important to our guest and it guides all we do. So, we build loyalty with our customers by promising not to sacrifice quality. 
In today’s health-focused world, our customers need choices to fit with their diet or allergen preferences. For us, it’s all about transparency. We want to make sure our guests can easily find the allergens and nutritional value in the food we prepare, and our team members are trained to help our guests when needed.
We’re actually taking it a step further and will be launching Healthy Dining’s new MyMenu technology system on our website and mobile app soon. This is our next step in engaging guests and building loyalty by meeting their specific eating preferences. MyMenu is a personalized interactive platform that makes it easy for our guests to match their preferences real time on their mobile phone so they don’t have to try finding the information on a pdf nutrition chart. So, whether they are watching calories and carbs, or eating vegetarian or gluten-free, or need to avoid food allergens – they are able to automatically and very conveniently find menu items that meet their needs and preferences. This is an important next step in engaging guests and building loyalty by meeting their specific eating preferences.

How have your guests changed in the last few years?
Nicole: Yes! It’s interesting to watch the evolution of the consumer. This may be my own theory, but I believe a lot of changing consumer habits have played off the entertainment industry and food documentaries. There is so much more visibility on food sourcing and its importance, empowering our consumers to ask more questions about what they are eating. This poses an opportunity and challenge to us as restaurateurs to really raise the bar of the food that we’re serving.
We’ve also seen a definite increase in plant-based diets, and we just launched a plant-based burger with a Mediterranean flare last March. This menu item has done so well that it’s earned its place on the menu fulltime, and has actually far outsold our grass-fed based burger. It’s not just vegetarians that are eating it, but meat eaters as well.

How do you see guests changing in the next few years and how are you getting ready for that?
I do believe that consumer will continue to be focused on food quality and want more information that they can easily access and apply to their lifestyle. This builds on our strong brand perspective and a defined culinary culture that aligns with it. When we’re looking at our menu and when developing new items, we look for where we can make meaningful changes: Can we reduce sodium?  Add fiber?  Are our nutritionals and allergens transparent for our guests to make educated decisions? It’s also important to us that we train and engage everyone on our teams to ensure alignment and overall culture buy-in. Our team is our army representing the brand, so we want them to live that message in a strong way.

What is your favorite menu item at Luna Grill?
Nicole: I probably eat at Luna Grill 3-4 times a week and our food is definitely cravable! Our Chicken Kabob Plate is probably our most popular item, but I would challenge everyone to have the flat-cut chicken. It deliciously melts in your mouth. My recent favorite has been the salmon with quinoa tabouleh. It’s so good!