Fast Casual | November 2012 | By Julie Knudson

Living the LYFE in Quick Service

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Former McDonald's executives founded the LYFE Kitchen fast casual concept.
From left: Mike Roberts, CEO; Stephen Sidwell, cofounder; and Mike Donahue, chief communications officer for LYFE Kitchen. LYFE Kitchen
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The Place

The LYFE restaurant environment furthers the brand’s message. Designed to be a place customers want to visit and hang out in, the store was conceived by Margee Drews, a designer at Margee Drews Design in Corona del Mar, California, and consultant to LYFE in affiliation with Synergy Restaurant Consultants. “We wanted people to feel as comfortable as possible in the restaurant,” Drews says. “We wanted them to feel at home.”

The vibe is residential, and the entry welcomes customers with a mosaic mat and chandeliers. Drews says the furniture was chosen for its homey feel and eschews much of what people are used to seeing in a fast-food restaurant. The sunroom is dotted with “unexpected lounge seating,” Drews explains, while sofas make customers cozy in the nook and family room areas. Large family-sized tables intermingle with the usual two-toppers.

Drews says the atmosphere was meant to mimic what a customer might feel if he or she was invited to a friend’s house—assuming the friend had a dazzling house and celebrity chef ready to cook for you. “So now you’re in this incredible home, and they’ve turned their kitchen over to the chef,” she says. “That is the feeling we wanted the space to have.”

As part of the brand’s lifestyle-focused mission, Drews says sustainability played a key role in crafting the restaurant’s image. “Everything the guest sees, touches, and smells—or doesn’t smell, in this case—goes back to creating our socially responsible design,” she says. Environmentally conscious materials are used throughout the space, from the bamboo floors to the large tables, which are made from teak and grown on sustainable plantations in Mexico. The countertops are constructed from 66 percent post-consumer glass. The furniture, too, was carefully selected.

“Our woven residential sofas are made from recycled milk and juice containers, and the upholstery is a PVC-free material,” Drews says. The result is a space that customers enjoy visiting. “When you come into LYFE Kitchen, you feel at home. It’s a happy place, and people just stay,” she says.

Miller believes that a commitment to sustainability could be a differentiator within the fast-casual segment. “Particularly for people who are being targeted for a lifestyle brand like this, if LYFE Kitchen delivers on the basics, this is a way to distinguish them from other fast-casual chains,” he says.

And though he says people still primarily make decisions based on taste and quality, other factors, like physical space, can often come into play. “Certainly the way they design the facility will reinforce that confidence on the consumers’ side that it’s healthy, high quality, and tastes good,” Miller says.

The Future

LYFE Kitchen has just one location now, but a second store will be opening in Culver City, California, in early 2013. Growth numbers have been thrown around, most of which the company won’t endorse as official. Roberts is quick to caution people from inferring where the brand will go from here.

“We have one restaurant,” he says. “And one restaurant doesn’t mean that we have five; it means that we have one. But we are growing, and we’re excited.”

Donahue won’t go on record with plans for expansion, but says it “was never in our interests to have a regional chain. It was never our idea to just have three or four restaurants.” The company’s Facebook page boasts requests for new stores from fans across the U.S., from Phoenix to Chicago.

The future of fast food might not be all about healthy living—it’s still seen as an indulgence by some diners, after all—but Donahue says that shifting attitudes about how and what we eat don’t surprise him. “I believe that the movement we’re joining exists,” he says. “Consumers are driving the trend.”

Each region of the country has its own quirks when it comes to dining, and Miller says LYFE has chosen a great launch pad in Palo Alto. “The San Francisco market area, of which Palo Alto is a part, tends to have higher usage of smaller chains and independents, and lower usage of bigger chains,” he says. “So that certainly is an auspicious place for them to be starting.”

Smith anticipates the core menu will appeal to “anyone looking for great-tasting, good-for-you food,” but says regional preferences might result in some tweaking.

“We may need to add a kick of heat in some areas and offer more seafood in others,” he says. Overall, though, he believes America will welcome the LYFE menu. “I am very excited to see LYFE offered in areas of the country that really need healthful foods at an affordable price,” he says.

The Chef Speaks

Chef Art Smith opens up about how LYFE Kitchen balances strong flavors with better-for-you nutritional profiles.

How do you develop dishes that are healthy and tasty, but still at a price point that fits into the fast-casual segment?

First and foremost, it is all about making sure it tastes great so our guests are surprised and delighted. Keeping the concept of the dish as simple as possible while allowing the ingredients to really stay as true to their original form helps keep a great, fresh taste, as well as preparation time and labor in check. The results are menu items that explode with flavor that can be offered at a fast-casual price point.

What’s been your strategy for creating a menu with less sodium but with all the taste?

We spent about a year in the test kitchens on a “Taste Quest.” I love seasoning with herbs, spices, and flavors (such as lemon juice and balsamic vinegar). In doing so, you can really use less sodium and obtain well-seasoned dishes. We have a beautiful herb wall in the restaurant that represents this way of seasoning.

Many restaurants have added healthy items to their menus, with varying success. What is LYFE doing that hasn’t been done before?

It started with the year-long “Taste Quest” and experimentation. We are also being transparent. If a traditional dish in conception doesn’t execute just as well in the more healthful preparation, it does not go on the menu. We are not composing a menu that is simply healthy driven, but food that tastes great that also happens to be healthy, as well as being convenient and affordable. Every single ingredient at LYFE is natural with no preservatives, and our menu features a large section that fits a variety of dietary needs, including vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free. Every day we ask ourselves, Why can’t good food be good for you? The beef for our burger is grass-fed, making it a great source of Omega 3s, and we also have a plant-based option that allows transformational opportunities.

The LYFE menu seems very California-friendly. How do you anticipate it will be received in other regions (Southeast, Midwest, etc.)?

We may need to add a kick of heat in some areas and offer more seafood in others. But overall, I believe America as a whole welcomes the kinds of items that we have on the LYFE menu. I am very excited to see LYFE offered in areas of the country that really need healthful foods at an affordable price.