This week, Miami-born Carrot Express will open its first location in a city outside Florida. And not just any city, but New York City, often considered the epicenter of any business "we made it" success story.
The journey from a Miami Beach gas station lunch counter to a growing chain brand is a testament to one man's determination to turn his vision into reality.
The story begins in the late 1990s when Carrot Express founder Mario Laufer took his passion for healthy eating and turned it into a business venture.
"At the time, I was in another industry, manufacturing ladies' clothing," Laufer tells New Times
. "I had come to a point in my life when I had to clean up my diet for health reasons. I had to take it seriously, and I decided to focus on something I'd become truly passionate about — and that was cooking."
In 1993, Laufer opened his first iteration of Carrot Express — Gourmet Carrot — in Miami.
During Gourmet Carrot's early days, Laufer recalls dismal sales, some days no more than $250 a day, and a clientele that included drug dealers who'd make sales along that particular stretch of West Flagler. He eventually sold the business, but a strong entrepreneurial spirit propelled him to try again.
In 2012, Laufer opened what some longtime Miami Beach residents may remember as a lunch counter inside the Texaco gas station on Alton Road. At the time, his parents and sister ran the business alongside him, all of them crammed into the meager 250-square-foot space.
It was here that Laufer changed the name to Carrot Express, refining the menu to nine sandwiches. Served on whole-wheat pita or as a wrap, they included tuna salad, chicken salad, baked organic tofu, avocado, hummus, mixed veggies, veggies and feta cheese, fat-free turkey breast, and a veggie burger.
It was here that Laufer met his future business partner, Carrot Express CEO Abraham Chehebar, whose wife came home one day to tell him about the incredible food she'd purchased at — of all places — the gas station down the road.
"I had to see for myself, so I went one day to grab food, and it was buzzing. I thought to myself, 'Wow, this place is really busy.' I was in the restaurant business, and I knew immediately there was something special about Carrot Express," Chehebar tells New Times
Several years later, an official business relationship began. The duo put together a management team and opened a handful of franchise locations — steps that would pave the way for a bigger, better Carrot Express.
Most important, however, the partnership gave Laufer the chance to concentrate on what he does best: Create an ever-evolving menu of healthy, delicious food. The chef took to his apartment kitchen, testing from-scratch recipes — everything from turkey burgers to his famous lime-cilantro dressing, which he says took an entire year — and honing them to perfection.
"Over the years, what's allowed Carrot Express to thrive is that we offer a great product. When you're dealing with such expensive ingredients, you'd think that would be difficult to execute, but it's not. That's where Mario's genius comes into play," Chehebar says.
The Carrot Express carrot cake
Photo courtesy of Carrot Express
Today, Carrot Express is thriving. More than a dozen corporate-owned Carrot Express restaurants have opened across South Florida in the past few years, including locations in Las Olas, Pinecrest, and Doral. That number will grow to more than 25 locations this year, including one a mere three minutes from Madison Square Park in Manhattan.
Laufer believes his success isn't just about eating healthy. It's about food that actually tastes good while also being good for you.
"The menu is always getting better. We're always adding things. I'm never satisfied," he explains. "That's part of what makes Carrot Express unique in the healthy, fast-casual restaurant space. Anything you eat in my restaurant tastes like it's homemade because it is."
Indeed, what was once a roster of fewer than a dozen cold items and sandwiches has ballooned to more than 30 dishes, from soups, salads, and smoothies to burgers, bowls, entrées, and desserts.
And while you'd be hard-pressed to find anything on the menu from Carrot Express' early days off Alton Road, one item — the LIV Wrap — can't be replaced.
"During those early days, we had a lot of influences, and David Grutman was a big fan," Laufer says of the Groot Hospitality founder. "He came in and asked me to make something special, a grilled chicken wrap with pesto, rice, and cheese. We named it the LIV, and it's still the best seller to this day."
Over the years, other longtime menu favorites include the Middle Eastern platter of quinoa tabbouleh drizzled with Champagne vinaigrette and topped with falafel, hummus, and roasted baba ghanouj and served with toasted multigrain bread by Zak the Baker ($14.95); the salmon buddha bowl with pan-seared salmon atop a blend of quinoa, Napa cabbage, scallions, edamame, corn, roasted eggplant, and Brussels sprouts ($18.95); and the chicken goddess sandwich, a panko-crusted chicken breast topped with cilantro-lime coleslaw and tomato on a toasted multigrain bun ($14.95).
These days, a new breakfast section is the latest addition to the Carrot Express menu. It features housemade muffins and granola (for açai bowls or overnight oats) and a plethora of egg-stuffed wraps, bagels, and avocado toast topped with everything from tuna tartare or chicken salad to a fried egg.
"It's been a bumpy ride to get here and to make my dream a reality. After so many failed business endeavors, to be where I am today is a blessing," sums up Laufer. "But looking back, every challenge taught me something, and it's helped make Carrot Express is today — a Miami success story."