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How One Franchisee's Product Idea Ended Up in All Locations

This story appears in the June 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Brad Shellen says he and his wife, Marilu, were looking to reinvent themselves when they became Tropical Smoothie Café franchisees in 2010. Little did he know he'd end up helping reinvent the company's .

Stan Hester/Tropical Smoothie Café

Shellen was inspired to find a way to incorporate an unlikely beverage ingredient—avocado—after a customer (who was a grower) brought a case of them to his restaurant. Looking to Marilu's native Peru for inspiration, Brad found a cocktail recipe that included avocado, lime and coconut. He began experimenting with smoothies that featured those ingredients, offering samples and getting feedback from customers until he believed the recipe was ready.

Tropical Smoothie Café's corporate team conducts a roadshow every other year, holding regional town hall-style meetings with franchisees. At a meeting in late 2012, Shellen excitedly shared his recipe with CEO Mike Rotondo, who promised to give it a try. That very night, Rotondo bought some avocados and commandeered a Tropical Smoothie Café kitchen after hours to whip up one of Shellen's smoothies. His reaction: "Wow, this is really good!"

After some tweaking—corporate added pineapple for sweetness and kale and spinach for nutrition—Rotondo introduced the concoction, which came to be called the Avocolada, as a limited-time offer during Tropical Smoothie Café's national convention in May 2014. "Mike was bragging about how I did it," Shellen says. "That was really nice, to be heard and to know that they follow up on and value our suggestions."

Rotondo says innovation is key to the , and that means involving franchisees. "A good franchisor is always going to listen and respond to ideas from franchisees," he says. "We're being proactive and asking for that information."

Case in point: A contest last year invited franchisees and their employees to create a new smoothie. Franchisees got to sample and vote on three finalists—out of almost 100 entries—at the convention. And while the winning recipe, submitted by a store manager, couldn't be added to the menu due to the scarcity of an ingredient—winter melon—it did inspire the company to come up with a similar seasonal offering, the Watermelon Mojito smoothie.

Shellen believes it's that culture of creativity that makes being a franchisee fun. "All the franchisees I know, we're all very excited," he says. "We feel like we're in the right place, where other [brands] are wanting to be." The numbers bear that out: Of the 101 franchise agreements the company signed last year, 60 were with existing franchisees.

"That's kind of my barometer on how we're doing as a brand," Rotondo says. "Our existing franchisees—the ones who know the good, the bad and the ugly—the fact that they want more and more tells me we're doing a good job."

Customers also want more—especially of the Avocolada. Within a few days of its launch in March, the new beverage was tied in popularity with the Island Green, a spinach-and-kale smoothie that has been the company's No. 1 seller for two years. Franchisees, in turn, pleaded to extend the life of the Avocolada beyond its limited-time offering. And once again, Rotondo listened. Shellen's creation is now a permanent fixture on the Tropical Smoothie Café menu.

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