Why This National Restaurant Concept Started Offering Therapy to Guests

Mental wellness isn’t a new focus for Noodles & Company. Since its inception 25 years ago, the nationwide fast-casual has offered its staff mental health resources, and as of 2020, that includes free counseling through a company called LifeWorks. But recently, the brand decided it was time to flip the script. It wanted to offer mental health resources not just to staff but also to its guests. 

As last year came to a close, the company set out to team up with online therapy platform BetterHelp, and timed with Mental Wellness Month, a partnership was announced at the outset of this month. Both staff and guests can now claim a free, one-month trial to the online therapy platform by visiting any of Noodles & Company's 450-plus locations or website by January 31.

“It comes down to Noodles’ brand platform, ‘Uncommon Goodness’ – a commitment to offering uncommonly good experiences to both our team members and guests,” says Stacey Pool, Noodles & Company’s chief marketing officer. “The partnership with BetterHelp was a natural way to show our commitment to nourish and inspire each team member and guest who walks through our doors.”

Noodles & Company joins a gradual emergence of restaurants using values-based promotions to entice customers. It’s a trend the industry’s likely to see grow as restaurants aim to target next-generation diners. Studies show that as many as 83% of millennials want companies to align with their values. In other words, young people are attracted to brands that stand for something more than just making a profit. For restaurants, quality of food and menu costs are obviously also important factors, but those that get behind a mission can help set themselves apart from the crowd to build stronger bonds.

We chatted with Pool to learn more about Noodle & Company’s decision to offer its guests access to tele-therapy, the response it’s drawn so far, and where she sees the future of value-based promotions in the industry.  

A therapy perk is obviously more unusual than many of the standard restaurant general promotion or loyalty strategies. I’d love to hear how you think values-based promotions could help restaurants target next-generation diners. 

We do believe values-based promotions assist in reaching the next generation of diners. Our data shows that Gen Z and millennials truly align with campaigns and promotions that are backed by a cause or value. We launched a partnership with Impossible Foods last year in direct response to demand we heard from our guests, especially guests within the Gen Z and millennial generations, interested in new protein alternatives and plant-based options. 

Our Noodles Rewards program is something we are very proud of and passionate about expanding. We rely on consumer data to track frequency, trends, ordering habits, and overall guest sentiment. We use this data to deliver exactly what our guests want, whether that’s a money-saving promotion, an exclusive taste test of a new menu item, or a value-based promotion such as BetterHelp. We will continue to use marketing data to serve our guests in a way that most closely resonates with their wants and needs.     

Do you foresee values-based promotions becoming more common within the industry in the near future?

Definitely – among restaurant brands and consumer brands alike. Gen Z and millennials are very intentional with the brands they choose to engage with, and I believe many restaurant brands are aware of that trend. However, it’s important to note that overall, we launch values-based promotions to give back to our guests and communities and to further showcase the commitment we have to our people.  

The best place to start is by digging into what is already innate to your brand. For us, that was Uncommon Goodness, and once we put a name to something we were already doing, the rest really fell into place. 

Beyond bringing greater access to mental health resources, was the BetterHelp partnership part of a specific branding goal or initiative? 

The BetterHelp partnership directly aligns with our mission to offer uncommonly good resources and experiences to our team members and guests. Through our partnerships, we’re able to innovate and create offers that our guests can’t get at any other fast-casual restaurant.  

We seek to partner with like-minded brands that we believe will result in unique and mutually beneficial outcomes for all parties involved. Our most recent partnerships include joining forces with TRUFF Hot Sauce to create a limited-time menu item and Impossible Foods to create Impossible Panko Chicken, a new plant-based protein option that has been added to our menu nationwide.    

Does Noodles & Company have current plans to execute any other values-based promotions? 

We have an upcoming values-based promotion set for Employee Appreciation Day in March. We will be announcing details surrounding that promotion in the next few weeks. Additionally, we engage in fundraisers to help our communities at large on an ongoing basis. In 2022, Noodles participated in local Colorado fundraisers to support victims of the Boulder County Fires and the Club Q tragedy. Noodles responds in real-time to significant events and steps to support communities in need. 

What has the response looked like since you launched the BetterHelp partnership, and what do you hope to see as the overall impact? 

Growing up with a family member who struggles with mental health challenges, I know firsthand the importance of access to help. The primary goal of this partnership is to give our loyal guests access to important mental health resources they may not know about or have the means to pursue on their own.   

The initial response has been wonderful. We’ve received feedback that guests are excited to try online therapy for the first time, and they’re thrilled Noodles provided that outlet to them. We’ve also heard from external parties that it was heartwarming to hear that Noodles is offering such a necessary mental health resource to people everywhere.    

Can you tell me about some of the other benefits Noodles & Company provides to staff?

Throughout 2021 and 2022, we invested more than $7 million to expand our team member benefits. This included an expansion of our diversity and inclusion efforts, added mental health-focused benefits, and more.  

Noodles’ list of team member benefits includes an immigration reimbursement, which offers employees $500 every two years to support fees associated with their immigration or work status journey, resources groups for our LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC team members, quarterly mental health workshops, and a GM equity bonus program that gives top-performing restaurant managers $50,000 in restricted stock.

Our “Balance Bucks” program incentivizes assistant general managers and above to invest in their mental health through an annual reimbursement of up to $625 that can cover expenses including gym membership, pet adoption, cleaning services, and more. Noodles also believes in supporting team members’ families and offers benefits including a phase-out, phase-in maternity program, six weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave, adoption and surrogacy assistance, and more.  

Can you share how this has helped with employee retention?  

Team members feel supported and valued at Noodles, leading to high retention numbers.  Noodles team member numbers are back to pre-pandemic levels. Many team members have already started to take advantage of the newer benefits, including enrolling in our immigration reimbursement program. 

The Noodles & Company Foundation was also created to help improve the well-being of our team members by being there in times of sudden crisis, which helps alleviate stress brought on by financial struggles. [It also] provides staff and their family members educational opportunities, and allows us to give back to the communities we serve. Since its inception, the foundation has provided more than $500,000 to team members in need, and our scholarship fund has provided more than $480,000 to further our team members’ educational goals. The Foundation is almost entirely funded by team members, and any team member can apply for assistance.

Do you have any advice for restaurant operators who want to expand their own employee benefits but are struggling with the investment? 

For any brands looking to expand but are hesitant because of the cost, I would encourage them to look deep within their company and seek out the areas in which their team members wish to see the most change. Is it diversity and inclusion? Work-life balance? Mental health benefits? 

From there, take the necessary steps to ensure funds are set aside to prioritize your team members. It’s not something that happens overnight, but with the right plan in place, employers can begin to reorganize quarterly funds and add employee benefits as a priority expense.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to grace@backofhouse.io.