Freshii, a fast-growing restaurant chain focused on fresh ingredients, is diving into the tech scene with a unique spin on a test kitchen.
The chain's newest location sits in 1871, a tech incubator located on the 12th floor of Chicago's massive Merchandise Mart.
Franchisee Alex Blair said the purpose of setting up shop at 1871 is to be surrounded by startups and innovators.
"If they've got something that's innovative for us, we can apply it and use it to transform our business. So it's a great tool at our fingertips to have all of these young ideas," said Mr. Blair, who has four Freshii locations including the 1871 location, which opens to the public Thursday.
Opening at 1871 gives Freshii an easy way to reach busy entrepreneurs, while also, as Mr. Blair puts it, "being able to use it as kind of a technology test hub." Still, Freshii isn't satisfied with searching only within the walls of 1871 for tech ideas. So it has launched a contest to search for innovations it can use to improve restaurant operations.
The project, which winks at coders with the name PROJECT < / PIONEER >, asks people to describe how they will use tech to innovate. There are eight categories: disposal, efficiency, lighting, menu, payment, refrigeration, seating and team.
Winning ideas will be tested at the 1871 restaurant. If successful, they could roll out across the chain, which has locations in 15 countries.
Freshii is the latest restaurant company to look outside for insights. Earlier this year, McDonald's went to SXSW seeking insights from tech entrepreneurs. The Golden Arches also opened a digital office in downtown Chicago to complement its San Francisco tech hub and attract tech talent. McDonald's Chicago office is steps away from 1871.
The Freshii restaurant at 1871 features a Metropolis coffee bar to fuel the coders, engineers and others who work at and visit the tech hub, along with Freshii fare such as salads, bowls and burritos. Tables from the Intelligentsia coffee shop that previously occupied the space were remade into a sign featuring Freshii mantras such as "Let's eat without regret" and "Let's embrace quinoa."