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Tropical Smoothie Cafe: Blending data into insights

At a glance

Tropical Smoothie Cafe wanted to learn faster from its point-of-sale data and integrate other data sources—such as weather details—for deeper insights. Together, we built a cloud-based data pipeline that combines AWS, Alteryx, and Tableau visualizations. Business leaders enjoy direct access to make timely, data-driven decisions that drive profitability and growth.

What we did

  • AWS data infrastructure, including Amazon Athena
  • Data source integration and automation with Alteryx
  • Cloud data architecture
  • Tableau dashboard visualizations

A recipe for growth

Dedicated to helping people eat better and feel better, Tropical Smoothie Café serves up healthy food and delicious smoothies with a tropical flair. The fast-growing chain has over 600 franchise locations in 44 states and aspires to reach 1,000 by the end of 2020.

With a mind to that future, Tropical Smoothie decided to level up its longstanding commitment to data-driven decision making. Leaders wanted faster answers with less time spent crunching numbers. They wanted to dig deeper and learn more.

Do people buy more smoothies when it’s sunny? Are customers more likely to favor mustard on their flatbread in the west or the south? What kind of special offers will draw customers into stores in stormy weather? Which new franchises had the highest sales yesterday and why?

To answer these kinds of questions, Tropical Smoothie needed to unite new and historical point-of-sale data from its stores with customer loyalty app data, franchise information, internal metadata about menu items and promotions, and a new “super set” of data including weather and traffic details.

“Our goal was to be able to answer C-Suite questions within a reasonable timeframe while adding additional insights that were previously unavailable,” says Justin Licker, the company’s director of finance and analytics.

We wanted to accelerate our time-to-insight with the data we already had, while adding more inputs to make new connections, uncover patterns, and take advantage of trends.

Speed and savings in the cloud

Tropical Smoothie was interested in Tableau for front-end business intelligence due to a recent hire with in-depth experience, but at the time company leaders had little interest in adding more staff to manage databases or making large infrastructure investments. We helped them leverage Alteryx and AWS to build a cloud-based data pipeline that fits seamlessly into existing workflows and doesn’t require additional personnel to run it.

The data that comes into Tropical Smoothie’s Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) on AWS includes loyalty app data via the cloud, POS data from Oracle, on-premise files, and third-party data streams. Data is cleaned, prepped, and automated with Alteryx, which provides a simple drag-and-drop interface for integrating data sources and doesn’t require SQL knowledge. From there, prepped data is automatically transferred to Tableau for visualization.

Cloud graph

As the plan was coming together, Tropical Smoothie’s appetite for data continued to grow. The initial scope of three data sources was expanded to thirteen, and leaders wanted to reach further into their historical data for context. There was a brief concern that these changes would make the initial architecture untenable—but Amazon Athena came to the rescue. Athena is a serverless, database-less, big data solution for rapid analytical querying.

“Realizing that we could do multi-threaded processing with Amazon Athena was a real ‘aha’ moment for the project,” says Chris Maycock, a client service partner with Slalom. “With Tableau’s new Athena connector, Tropical Smoothie can visualize its biggest data table, over two billion rows, in less than seven seconds.”

Best of all, the cost for Athena is based entirely on the amount of data processed. With batches running only once a night and a compact file format, Tropical Smoothie’s total monthly spend for its entire AWS infrastructure is less than most people pay to rent an apartment—and a tiny fraction of building out a traditional data warehouse.

Insight with a side of foresight

In just a few weeks, clean, enriched data was streaming into Tableau. The remainder of the 11-week project focused on building dashboards focused on promotional performance, the impact of weather on sales, loyalty app engagement, menu item popularity, new store sales, and other priorities. Interactive visualizations deliver at-a-glance answers, but also empower business users to explore their data and tease out new insights.

With efficient analytics spread across the organization, data-driven decision making is picking up steam. Leaders have immediate visibility on topline performance and increasing understanding of market trends. The opportunities are limitless.

“Tracking individual programs—whether nationwide or specific test—is much more streamlined,” says Karen Anderson, who works in marketing at Tropical Smoothie. “We can focus on analyzing our data, versus just compiling and collecting it. Isolating trends across regions and time periods is much more straightforward than it used to be. We’ve got a lot planned as we work towards truly individualized marketing programs and building 1-1 relationships with our guests.”

We can focus on analyzing our data, versus just compiling and collecting it.

The company is still in the early stages of linking up all the new data sources, but the true power of the solution comes in providing enterprise-wide visibility of all the data integrated together. When operations data, marketing data, real estate data, and more are combined, everyone in the organization benefits from a much broader, more unified understanding of results.

“We’re just getting started,” says Licker. “We’re launching a brand scorecard to visually ‘move the needle’ on our business, and we continue to add data sources. We couldn’t ask for a better data foundation to fuel our growth.”

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