Driving Disruption: Patrik Hellstrand Of Picadeli On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industry

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Sustainable Sourcing:

Sustainability is at the core of our mission. We source our ingredients that are more sustainable for our farming systems. This not only supports agriculture but also ensures that we are contributing to a healthier planet. One of our notable achievements involves avoiding red meat, which has allowed us to offer high-quality, alternative proteins while reducing our carbon footprint.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes, but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Patrik Hellstrand.

Patrik Hellstrand is an entrepreneurial CEO with over two decades of leadership experience, partnering with investors and companies to develop and execute innovative business models. Beginning his career programming machines in Stockholm, Patrik joined Carnival Corporation in the cruise industry. He then moved on to direct Hilton’s Conrad brand, pioneer text analytics in hospitality, and oversee the $2 billion Revel resort and casino project. His journey continued at Equinox, leading ancillary businesses and later transitioning to startups, where he expanded fast-casual restaurant companies with Breakaway and Bain Capital. Inspired to address America’s significant food accessibility problem, Patrik founded Strand Ventures and now leads Picadeli US, revolutionizing the salad bar scene with fresh ingredients, cutting-edge technology, and a commitment to sustainability. Holding certifications from prestigious institutions including Harvard, Berkeley, Columbia, MIT, and Cornell and an MBA from The University of Liverpool, Patrik believes in solving meaningful problems, transforming complexity into simplicity, leveraging the minds of many, and deploying technologies impactfully. He fosters a culture of ownership and creates engaging environments where he and others learn from one another and do their best work, never settling for less than excellence.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Like many things in life, my career path began with a happy accident. I started in Sweden, programming machines in a factory. I remember looking out the window one cold, dark winter day and feeling like something was missing. At just 20 years old, I wanted to explore and experience the world beyond Sweden.

This desire to escape the cold and travel the world led me to hospitality. I began by cleaning hotel rooms and assisting in kitchens and bars, and I found myself drawn into a world where each day brought new interactions and experiences. I fell in love with hospitality and have remained in people-focused businesses ever since, gradually advancing from cleaning toilets to holding CEO positions across diverse sectors such as the cruise industry, hotels, restaurants, casinos, resorts, and fitness.

My journey has always been close to food, from my time as a sommelier to leading food and beverage at Equinox and many other business units. My first singular leadership role in food was when I became CEO of a fast-casual restaurant business, a venture capital portfolio company.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes Picadeli stand out is our commitment to solving a real problem — the lack of affordable, healthy food options in America. Unlike many ventures driven primarily by economic opportunity, Picadeli emerged from a genuine desire to address this issue. As a CEO in the fast-casual industry, I noticed that lunches are priced between $13 and $17 in major cities and questioned why an $8 salad of comparable quality wasn’t available everywhere. This frustration led me to discover Picadeli in Sweden, which offered a solution to bringing affordable, fresh food to the US market, especially crucial during the challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Picadeli is so much more than a salad company. We are a public benefits corporation committed to making healthy food accessible to everyone. Approximately 60% of our locations are strategically placed in areas with a Gini index score of 0.4 or higher, directly targeting regions of significant economic inequality. The Gini index measures income distribution within a population, with 0 representing perfect equality and 1 indicating maximum inequality. By focusing on areas with higher Gini index scores, we aim to deliver accessible, nutritious food options to underserved communities.

Additionally, our obsession with exceptional service is what sets us apart. Rooted in my background in hospitality, Picadeli prioritizes customer experience above all else. Unlike many companies that may put their own convenience over customer needs, we design our operations around what best serves our consumers, even if it means additional effort or cost. This customer-first approach has earned us a reputation for exceptional service.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Hands-On Approach: Early in my hospitality career, I initially mirrored authoritative leadership styles I’d seen but quickly realized their limitations. Instead, I adopted a servant leadership approach, where I lead through influence and example. For instance, during my tenure as VP of Hotel Operations at Revel, I didn’t hesitate to roll up my sleeves and help clean rooms during a shortage of housekeepers. Similarly, as CEO overseeing restaurant openings, I cleaned bathrooms and swept floors at night alongside my team. This hands-on approach fosters a strong team and sets a tone that if I’m willing to do whatever it takes, others are inspired to do the same.
  2. Servant Leadership in Action: At Picadeli, we practice servant leadership by flipping the traditional hierarchy upside down. Our Customer Success Specialists (CSSs) are the backbone of our company because they are closest to our customers. They report directly to me, bypassing layers of management, ensuring their voices are heard, and their issues are swiftly addressed. To further support them, most of the team, including me, assist during store openings and travel to provide market support. My team humorously refers to me as “US IT Support” because I’m always available to help them navigate all sorts of challenges. This approach ensures that I can remove obstacles so our CSS team can deliver their best work and feel valued, addressing a common issue where frontline staff often feel neglected. Recently, I spent a morning in Minneapolis visiting stores with a new CSS team member, understanding her challenges firsthand and ensuring she felt supported. This hands-on involvement empowers our frontline to excel, knowing they have direct access to leadership and are crucial to our success.
  3. Genuine Care and Accountability: I firmly believe businesses are fundamentally about people. It’s essential for CEOs to genuinely care about their team’s well-being and success. It’s my personal mission to ensure every team member feels supported and empowered to succeed. This commitment to accountability means I take responsibility for their success, actively supporting and guiding them rather than leaving them to fend for themselves. This approach builds trust and loyalty and fosters a cohesive team environment where everyone feels valued and motivated to achieve their best work.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

The hardest decision I ever made as a leader, one that still brings tears to my eyes, involved letting go of a remarkable team member during financial hardship. Good companies with the best intentions can face tough times that necessitate layoffs. It’s often an organized process where you can’t just cherry-pick who to keep; you must follow a set method, especially in a large company.

I remember this woman on our team vividly. I was the vice president of hotel operations, and she was a dedicated housekeeping supervisor doing great work. Unfortunately, she was one of the people on the list we had to let go. As I handed her the letter, she opened to me about her personal struggles — she had cancer, and her husband had just left her. Losing her job would mean losing her health insurance, which she needed for her cancer treatment. It was an impossible situation for her.

This decision was financially necessary for the company but incredibly difficult from a human perspective. It showed me how hard people can work under the most challenging circumstances. Despite her personal battles, she remained a fantastic supervisor, showing incredible strength and dedication.

This experience was a humbling moment that reinforced the importance of empathy in leadership. It made me grateful for my own job security and health. It strengthened my commitment to lead with compassion, ensuring that even when making tough decisions, I consider the human impact and support my team members as much as possible.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

To us, disruption refers to innovations or actions that significantly alter and challenge the status quo of how people eat, leading to new ways of thinking, operating, or providing value. In our case, that involves leveraging technology, a unique and rare innovative business model, and a distinctive approach to solving the lack of affordable, better food more efficiently and effectively than traditional fast-casual methods.

At Picadeli, we aim to revolutionize the fresh food industry by providing convenient, healthy, and sustainable salad bars. We are committed to disrupting the conventional fast-food landscape by offering a superior alternative that aligns with modern consumer demands for healthier, more customizable meal options. By integrating advanced technology into our operations, ensuring sustainable sourcing, and maintaining high standards of food quality, we are not only meeting the current needs of our customers but also setting new benchmarks for the industry.

Our focus on innovation and customer-centric solutions exemplifies what true disruption entails — transforming the market to provide greater value and a better experience for consumers, while fostering a more sustainable and health-conscious society.

How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

In the food industry, disruption is not just a strategy; it is a necessity. Many food operators’ traditional approaches have led to a lack of innovation and higher consumer prices, resulting in limited access to affordable and healthier food options across America. At Picadeli, we see disruption as a crucial element in driving meaningful change.

Personally, I have embraced this by championing initiatives that push the boundaries of what’s possible in our sector. For instance, we have implemented advanced AI technology to streamline our supply chain, ensuring freshness and reducing waste. Moreover, we focus on sustainable sourcing and providing a customizable eating experience that meets the diverse needs of our customers. We also use existing under-utilized real estate and built-in labor to stand up new locations in hours, not months.

By constantly challenging the status quo and seeking new ways to improve our offerings, we aim to set a new standard in the industry. This commitment to disruption ensures that we are not just keeping up with trends but actively shaping the future of food service to make healthier, more affordable options widely available.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

I am a contrarian, so it feels natural for me to challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom. One lesson I’ve learned is that optimal systems and processes are rare, and often, the biggest opportunities lie within the best-performing business units, which are frequently overlooked. Conventional wisdom might suggest leaving these high performers alone, assuming they don’t need improvement. However, I like to look where no one else is looking to uncover hidden inefficiencies and opportunities.

For example, consider a fitness club’s personal training department with the highest revenue. The executive team is tempted to leave it alone because it’s doing great. But I dig deeper to understand the underlying processes. Revenue doesn’t just happen; it results from a series of actions. So, I would examine how many new members are contacted and introduced to the program, how many assessments are conducted, and how many of those assessments convert into training sessions. If we find that only 30% of new members are contacted compared to an average of 60%, or that their conversion rates are lower than other clubs, it reveals inefficiencies. The high revenue could be due to the presence of many members, which masks poor performance in critical metrics.

I’ve developed a proactive and investigative leadership style by challenging conventional wisdom and focusing on analyzing the factors that lead to revenue rather than just outcomes. This approach enables me to identify improvement areas often overlooked by others who concentrate only on underperforming units. By dedicating less time to outcomes and more to understanding and enhancing underlying processes, I consistently drive continuous improvement and uncover significant growth opportunities in unexpected areas within our organization.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

Disruptive ideas inevitably encounter resistance, as evidenced by Picadeli’s journey. Before COVID-19, we recognized a significant food problem in America — the absence of affordable, nutritious options like an $8 salad. When the pandemic hit, salad bars disappeared overnight, and many would have walked away from our idea. Yet in 2020, amidst the crisis, we chose to launch Picadeli in the U.S., despite initial doubts and the daunting prospect of pitching a salad bar concept in a post-salad bar world. We persisted because we believed our solution could address the underlying issue obscured by the pandemic: a need for accessible healthy food unaffected by a virus not transmitted through food.

Our perseverance paid off; by continually finding supporters who shared our vision, we demonstrated how, beyond the pandemic, our concept could thrive. Picadeli now spans over 100 locations nationwide, proving that enduring dedication and unwavering belief in solving persistent problems can lead to transformative outcomes. My advice is don’t give up. Have the tenacity to stick with it, and if you genuinely believe in something, persevere — especially when it seems like the world is in chaos. If you still foresee the problem existing years from now, keep preparing to tackle it where you envision it emerging.

What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”?

  1. Technological Integration in Operations:

Picadeli uses advanced AI technology to streamline our supply chain and ensure the freshness of our products. For example, our state-of-the-art inventory and ordering deep learning management system allows us to monitor stock levels in real time, reducing waste and ensuring that our salad bars are always stocked with the freshest ingredients. This technological edge enhances efficiency and significantly reduces food waste, making our operations more sustainable and profitable for our partners.

2. Customizable Dining Experience:

We prioritize offering a highly customizable meal experience for our consumers. Unlike traditional fast-food outlets, Picadeli allows customers to create their own salads with a variety of fresh ingredients. This approach caters to individual dietary preferences and needs, providing a healthier, more personalized meal option. An anecdote that stands out is when a customer with specific dietary restrictions praised our customization options, highlighting how Picadeli made it easy for them to enjoy a meal that fit their unique requirements.

3. Sustainable Sourcing:

Sustainability is at the core of our mission. We source our ingredients that are more sustainable for our farming systems. This not only supports agriculture but also ensures that we are contributing to a healthier planet. One of our notable achievements involves avoiding red meat, which has allowed us to offer high-quality, alternative proteins while reducing our carbon footprint.

4. Innovative Packaging Solutions:

Picadeli uses eco-friendly packaging for all its products to address environmental concerns. Our salad containers are made from recyclable materials, reducing environmental impact. This initiative was particularly well-received during Earth Day, when we ran a campaign to educate customers about the importance of sustainable packaging, resulting in a significant increase in customer engagement and positive feedback.

5. Health and Wellness Focus:

At Picadeli, promoting health and wellness is key to our strategy. We continuously innovate our menu to include nutrient-rich ingredients. For example, we recently introduced more sustainable proteins that cater to fitness enthusiasts and health-conscious consumers. This innovation was inspired by feedback from consumers looking for healthier meal options to support their active lifestyles.

By leveraging these five innovative approaches, Picadeli is disrupting the traditional food service industry and setting new standards for quality, sustainability, and customer satisfaction. Each initiative reflects our commitment to providing our customers with better, healthier, and more environmentally friendly food options.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

Being disruptive has fundamentally shaped my career by constantly pushing me to challenge the status quo and seek innovative solutions. Early in my career, I realized that sticking to conventional methods often led to stagnant results. Embracing disruption allowed me to explore new avenues and create impactful changes. One surprising discovery was the extent to which small, incremental innovations could lead to significant transformations in operations and customer experiences. These minor adjustments, often overlooked by others, accumulated over time to improve efficiency, productivity, and customer satisfaction. By fostering a culture of continuous improvement and openness to new ideas, I was able to drive meaningful progress and stay ahead in a rapidly evolving industry.

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

On a personal level, embracing disruption has instilled a mindset of continuous learning and adaptability. It has taught me the importance of resilience and staying open to new ideas, even if they initially seem unconventional. This approach has made me more effective in my professional role and more versatile in handling personal challenges. Additionally, seeing innovative ideas come to fruition and positively impact people’s lives has been immensely rewarding.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

As a leader, one of my primary concerns is ensuring that our innovations align with our core values and long-term vision. I often think about balancing rapid growth with sustainability and keeping our team feeling good and not burnt out. Another concern is maintaining a culture of innovation within the organization, ensuring every team member feels empowered to contribute ideas. These reflections guide my leadership by prioritizing transparent communication, fostering a collaborative environment, and making decisions considering both short-term gains and long-term impact.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I started a movement, it would be a national initiative to make healthy, affordable food accessible to everyone. Which is, in fact, what we are already doing. By leveraging technology and innovative distribution methods, we aim to ensure that nutritious food reaches underserved communities nationally, which in turn improves public health and fosters economic growth and environmental sustainability.

How can our readers further follow your work online?


Follow me on LinkedIn

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.