(Sept. 17) COLUMBUS, Miss. — Named after a popular produce item, freshness is a key to the success of an expanding Southernfast-casual chain.

“Fresh produce plays a big role in this operation,” said John Bean, a partner with Sweet Peppers Deli, a chain that adds Southerncharm to a New York-style deli’s half dozen locations in northeast and southern Mississippi.

The chain recently opened its second Memphis, Tenn., franchise, after selling a franchise location in Hattiesburg, Miss.

“Freshness is a guiding philosophy,” said Gus Davis, the chain’s corporate chef.

“We adjust our ordering to make sure we get as fresh a product as possible. Freshness is the key to bringing people back.”

The chain, which started in 1996 in a renovated gas station, serves its sandwiches, panini sandwiches, wraps, salads and soups in an atmosphere that features neon signs, glass garage doors and outdoor eating areas. Although guests order items at the register, servers deliver food and drinks to the tables.

Though a major national foodservice purveyor supplies many produce and other food items with twice-weekly deliveries, the restaurant sources most of its 30 fresh produce items through regional distributors such as United Produce Co. Inc., Starkville, Miss., and local farmers markets.

“The produce guy comes every day,” Davis said.

Workers slice and chop their own lettuce, tomatoes, onions and peppers while higher volume items such as shredded cabbage and carrots are sourced from fresh-cut purveyors, Davis said.

The restaurant sells many baked potatoes as well, he said.

MAY ADD FRESH-CUT

It’s also considering adding fresh-cut fruit as a side item to its menu.

“We get a lot of requests for that,” Davis said.

Davis said Sweet Peppers has hired a nutritionist and is working to provide more health information about its food.

“Our guest are looking for that kind of information,” he said. “A couple of years ago we started getting requests for nutritional information. That has turned from a handful to a flurry.”

VEGGIE REQUESTS

The restaurant is receiving more requests for vegetarian dishes, which it tries to provide as feature items such as a vegetarian wrap, Davis said.

The chain’s wraps remain popular, he said.

“People are looking for convenience,” he said. “A lot of our customers have business suits. They don’t want to spill gravy on them. A wrap, which has flavorful ingredients, makes for a tidy way to eat a sandwich.”

Sweet Peppers plans additional franchise expansion in neighboring Arkansas and from Texas to Florida, Davis said.

Regular and panini sandwiches sell for $5.99-6.99, wraps, $4.99-5.99, with salads going for $2.99-6.99.