Fresh Food Fixation Becomes a Business Green Bean Restaurant Founder, a WU Student, is Finalist for National Entrepreneur Award

December 18, 2012

Copyright 2012, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. All Rights Reserved.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Sarah Haselkorn sat table-side at a restaurant in the Central West End, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and a backpack at her side.

She looked a lot like a typical college student — which she is. Sort of.

Haselkorn is, in fact, a senior at Washington University. But, between classes, exams and the demands of a her systems engineering major, she has also managed to co-launch and run Green Bean, a quick-service restaurant that serves fresh salads and wraps.

In the process, she’s tapped into a growing national trend — and an exploding market for fast, healthy food.

Haselkorn and her concept have, in fairly short order, caught the eye of a prestigious national entrepreneur organization, and a week from Monday she’ll give a presentation to its members on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. She has another non-restaurant concept in development, and probably a lot more floating around in her head.

Oh, and she’s a triathlete. And she’s only 20.

Haselkorn moved to St. Louis from her hometown of Washington when she was 17, and soon determined the city’s food landscape was missing something.

“I noticed quickly there weren’t very many healthy restaurants in St. Louis where you could get something fast,” she remembers.

Healthy and fast are important attributes for a busy student who happens to run the odd triathlon. So rather than complain about the lack of quick-service, healthy restaurants, she opened one herself.

Haselkorn got in touch with a friend from her hometown, Nick Guzman, who had recently graduated from Amherst College, and the two started developing a business plan via email.

After a couple months trading ideas and doing research — Haselkorn spent hours watching customers come and go inside other area restaurants — the two had a formal pitch.

Based loosely on salad-centric restaurants they’d been to in New York and Washington, Green Bean would be fast and healthy.

It also would go a step beyond that: Green Bean, the concept went, would use recycled materials in all its packaging, reuse building materials, compost and recycle everything, and order food daily, tailoring it to the ebbs and flows of daily traffic to minimize waste.

“We wanted to have real, whole food and transparent nutrition,” Haselkorn says. “But we also wanted to focus on sustainability. We wanted to be better, different. We wanted it to be Green Bean.”

The two were confident in their concept, Haselkorn says, but were less so about their menu. So they approached James-Beard-award-winning chef, Peter Pastan — who is the father of one of Guzman’s friends — and asked him to develop a menu.

“I was 18 when I went to him,” Haselkorn remembers. “He said: Are you sure you want to do this?”

A few months later, they had found a space in the 200 block of North Euclid Avenue, and a few months after that they were tearing the place apart. Acting as their own general contractors, Haselkorn and Guzman oversaw the renovation and did much of the work themselves, using materials recovered during demolition.

Today Green Bean employs eight people, with Haselkorn and Guzman doing much of the work themselves, from maintenance to ordering.

When asked whether there’s anything she’s not involved in, Haselkorn says: “No. Not really. Well, maybe. We have a tax accountant.”

The restaurant does a steady business, mostly from health-conscious customers in the neighborhood and medical students from Wash U. It has been in business for about a year, and Haselkorn is already thinking about expansion possibilities.

“I think there’s room in the market in St. Louis, but the other option is to franchise,” she says. “We want to make sure it’s perfect first. You don’t want to replicate any imperfections.”

Analysts see more potential, too.

A “fast casual” restaurant — the category that Green Bean finds itself in — serves food that’s a notch or two higher in quality than typical fast food, but is not a full-service restaurant. Food usually is ordered at a counter, with a server sometimes delivering it to a table.

The category has boomed in the past decade as people seek out healthier, convenient food.

“Fast casual continues to outperform the rest of the industry,” said industry analyst Darren Tristano of Chicago-based Technomic. “ The drivers are from customers moving up from fast food, and diners moving down from full-service.”

Technomic estimates that the fast-casual category represented about $27 billion of the $370 billion restaurant market in 2011.

“It’s still very small,” Tristano said. “But there’s growth at double digits for the past 10 years, and it’s growing. We’re going to see more ethnic food concepts, and more healthy concepts.”

On Nov. 12, Haselkorn will present the Green Bean concept to a group of judges with the Entrepreneurs’ Organization’s Global Student Entrepreneur Awards. She’s one of 30 finalists from 42 countries.

Haselkorn — to her surprise — was selected to compete in a regional competition earlier this year, taking first place and earning the spot in New York.

That she won comes as no real surprise to her Wash U professor, Clifford Holekamp. He teaches a highly popular class for entrepreneurs called The Hatchery, which has launched dozens of successful businesses.

“Part of the award is based not just on the business, but on the entrepreneur,” Holekamp explained. “She’s a very talented young lady. She’s balancing an engineering curriculum, minoring in entrepreneurship and running a successful business, and that is just extraordinary.”

J.B. Forbes – Sarah Haselkorn, 20, puts together a potato chip display stand recently at her restaurant Green Bean in the Central West End. The Washington University student opened the restaurant one year ago.