Fast Casual | November 2012 | By Julie Knudson

Living the LYFE in Quick Service

Is a healthy fast-casual concept dreamed up by a couple of former McDonald’s executives the future of quick service?

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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Ask a quick-serve industry analyst about the latest in fast-food trends, and he might point you to fast casual, healthy eating, fresh food, sustainability, and celebrity chefs.

Ask that same analyst to single out a brand that best encapsulates all of those things, and he might have a hard time coming up with anything other than LYFE Kitchen. But the Palo Alto, California-–based concept led by a pair of former McDonald’s executives isn’t just a buzzword-friendly anomaly; it might be laying the groundwork for the future of the industry and the expectations of fast-food customers across the U.S.

Even still, Mike Roberts, CEO of LYFE and former president and COO of McDonald’s, says the concept isn’t something that sprung from recent trends.

“We identified this lifestyle many, many years ago,” he says. Roberts believes Americans are ready for something new—that they’re seeking it, even. “So many people are looking for great-tasting, great-for-you-food at a reasonable price.”

Mike Donahue, partner and chief communications officer at LYFE, agrees that the concept is something that’s been a long time coming. The former head of communications for McDonald’s says LYFE (Love Your Food Everyday) is “transformational eating without being preachy.” And while he and Roberts may have plenty of restaurant experience under their collective belts, Donahue is quick to say they’re humble about the prospects of learning more about the healthy-dining category. “The whole notion is that the customer will drive us,” he says.

LYFE is looking to blaze a path forward, and Donahue says the team doesn’t consider the brand to be either quick serve or fast casual; rather, it opts for the “lifestyle brand” moniker.

“It’s to adapt to the changing needs of the American consumer,” he says, “where food is no longer a guilty pleasure, but it’s an indulgence that’s part of an active, healthy lifestyle.”

Roberts adds, “This is a marketplace-driven sort of initiative. It is a reflection, I think, of the way we’re all beginning to appreciate food and the impact it has on us.”

In today’s marketplace, many concepts are striving for that elusive triple threat of great-tasting, healthy, and affordable food, but few, if any, have succeeded. In LYFE, the industry may finally have a model that ushers that triumvirate into the mainstream.

The People

At LYFE, the team behind the concept is part of its fabric. In addition to the business acumen wielded by Roberts and Donahue, LYFE enjoys culinary prowess unknown in the quick-service industry. Roberts says LYFE is chef driven, something he believes adds significantly to the brand’s appeal.

“Most Americans will never be able to afford a personal chef,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could play some small role in providing this kind of food for people?”

Celebrity chef Art Smith is executive chef at LYFE. His resume includes a stint as personal chef to Oprah Winfrey, author of multiple cookbooks, and star of shows such as “Iron Chef America” and “Top Chef Masters.” He says his own struggles with diabetes and weight gain were part of the inspiration behind the LYFE menu.

“The past three to four years, I have been eating cleaner dishes, but still allowing the comfort foods that I grew up on to be enjoyed once a week, just not every day,” he writes in an e-mail to QSR. Smith sees LYFE as a way to improve consumers’ relationships with food, and says he was eager to be involved after talking with Roberts, Donahue, and founder Stephen Sidwell about the concept. “[Thirty] minutes in I said, ‘This is exactly what America needs. I don’t want to just have my toe in the water, I want to jump in with both feet!’”

Another renowned chef, Tal Ronnen, came on board early in the process, as well. Ronnen, who also has experience working with Winfrey, is the vegan consulting chef on the team. His participation created well-rounded firepower that Donahue says was begging to be put to good use.

“Our goal was to do something special with the experience and the accumulated expertise in the [kitchen],” he says.

The Fare

Any fast-food brand can offer consumers healthy food—and many today are—but Chris Miller, senior vice president of Sandelman & Associates in San Clemente, California, says consumers’ dining decisions still come down to flavor.

“Particularly for a brand that is explicitly positioning themselves as healthy, they’re really going to have to knock it out on taste, because customers are skeptical that healthier products can actually taste good,” he says.

That skepticism is something LYFE recognizes and addresses. Smith explains that surprising and delighting guests with great-tasting food is “first and foremost,” and that he and the LYFE team spent a year in the test kitchens on what he calls a “taste quest.” Appetizing dishes don’t need to be expensive, Smith writes in his e-mail, but producing tasty food that fits the price range of fast-casual diners does take planning and innovation.

“Keeping the concept of the dish as simple as possible, while allowing the ingredients to really stay true to their original form, helps keep great, fresh taste, as well as preparation time and labor, in check,” Smith explains. It results in dishes that are flavorful, he says, but that can still be offered at a fast-casual price. “I like to cook foods that I like to eat, and the LYFE menu is very representative of that.”

Donahue says the LYFE concept has three factors: “It starts with great taste, great taste, great taste.” He says the team knew that if they were going to put all of their eggs into the healthy-restaurant basket, flavor had to be the No. 1 appeal.

“That’s why it took us a year to finish our taste quest with chefs Art Smith and Tal Ronnen,” Donahue says. “We know the consumer will reject healthy if it doesn’t taste good. It’s about great taste first. And if we lose on that proposition, few other things matter.”

The LYFE menu matches a variety of customer preferences, using only ingredients with no preservatives and offering vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options. It also uses grass-fed beef and has some plant-based protein options.

“Healthy has a range of meanings for people,” Miller says. Calories, fat grams, carbohydrates, salt, sugar—all of these have become the focus of popular diets. And while Miller says a minority of consumers are looking for healthy offerings from quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants, there is still significant interest. Data collected from a 2012 Sandelman & Associates study show that 25 percent of quick-serve and fast-casual users have a daily calorie target.

LYFE wants to prove the balance between healthy ingredients and great taste is an attainable goal for quick serves, which is why its menu was developed without much salt.

“I love seasoning with herbs, spices, and flavors (such as lemon juice and balsamic vinegar),” Smith writes. “In doing so, you can really use less sodium and obtain well-seasoned dishes.” He refers to the LYFE approach as “authentic cooking” and says the restaurant’s herb wall is a visual representation of that.

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.