Southern California may be all about warmth and sunshine, but the success of Lemonade proves its residents still crave comfort foods.
Lemonade is, according to its own website, “a modern marketplace serving a colorful bounty of seasonal California comfort food in a bright cafeteria setting.”
“California comfort food is all about the vegetables,” says Ian Olsen, president of Lemonade Restaurant Group. “The clean and healthy options—that’s been the driver of Lemonade.”
Chef Alan Jackson and his wife, Heidi, founded Lemonade in 2008 because, Olsen says, the last thing a chef wants to do after work is go home and cook dinner, but quick, inexpensive options were limited and not particularly healthy.
“It was designed as a chef’s larder,” says Olsen, who partnered with Jackson in 2009. “As in, ‘What is chef Alan going to make for you today?’”
Jackson remains the creative vision for Lemonade’s cuisine, which is supplied by the company’s commissary and finished at individual stores to maintain freshness and control costs. At the cafeteria-style restaurant, customers grab a tray and go down the line, choosing from an array of seasonal offerings that change frequently.
“Guests see ingredients and recipes and are served by people in chef coats behind the glass,” Olsen says. “That’s a hallmark of the brand; not everyone is a trained chef at every location, but every location has people who have been in culinary school or have been chefs.”
CHEF & FOUNDER: Alan Jackson
PRESIDENT: Ian Olsen
HQ: Los Angeles
YEAR STARTED: 2008
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 23
LICENSED UNITS: 4
The backbone of the Lemonade menu is the section called Marketplace. With nearly 20 chef-driven vegetable combinations, about 90 percent of Marketplace offerings are vegetarian and 20 percent are vegan. Three recent choices at the Studio City location included Avocado, Cherry Tomato, Pine Nuts, and Lime; Butternut Squash, Brussels Sprouts, Grapes, and Almonds; and Watermelon Radish, Seared Tuna, Snap Pea, and Ginger. Marketplace offerings are seasonal and subject to change.
For omnivores, The Land + Sea menu offers a variety of proteins. Choices can include buttermilk-baked chicken breast, citrus poached salmon, or seared ahi tuna. Another station offers what Lemonade calls “Right Sized Sandwiches” toasted to order. Panini choices include comfort food classics like grilled cheese, as well as innovative options like the El Tijuana made with turkey, jalapeño aioli, jicama slaw, and queso fresco. Pot roast sandwiches served hot on sourdough rolls are another sandwich option.
Lemonade also offers slow-cooked, braised proteins, such as pulled pork, jerk chicken, and the popular Red Miso Beef Short Rib. The Hot Portions lineup includes choices like macaroni and cheese, chicken chili, and vegetarian chili.
Comfort also comes in the form of dessert at Lemonade: There are at least 25 different homemade desserts each day. Olsen says desserts allow guests to find the right dietary balance. If people have a healthy meal, they feel they deserve the cupcake.
“That’s where the comfort comes in,” he says. “A good portion of the menu focuses on lower-carb and vegetable-centric options, but if you want a heartier meal, there are braised dishes and desserts.”
To wash it all down, there are six lemonade choices available each day, from classic versions to flavor combinations like blueberry mint and pineapple coriander.
The variety of options may be intimidating at first, but Lemonade has greeters in each restaurant to explain how the process works. And those working behind the glass are trained to answer questions specific to the food.
All selections are priced by the portion, starting at $2.75 for an entry-level Marketplace item and up to $9.50 for a rotisserie-grilled protein. The average per person ranges from $15 to $17 depending on location.
A standard Lemonade store is between 3,000 and 4,000 square feet. The urban express model used in downtown settings with high-density daytime populations is somewhat smaller. All locations are corporate-owned, except for four licensed locations: two in Dubai, a campus unit at the University of Southern California, and one at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
With a foothold in the Los Angeles area, the concept entered the San Francisco market this year, and Olsen says there are plans for eight to 10 locations in the Bay area in the next 18 months. Those locations, as well as the LAX store, offer breakfast because “the day starts earlier” there, Olsen says. A second commissary serves the San Francisco stores.
Olsen and Jackson are confident Lemonade can work anywhere, and they hope to bring it to other U.S. markets. Texas, New York, and Washington, D.C., are being considered. Nevertheless, Olsen says the concept has a “hub-and-spoke model” since the growth plan targets regional growth. Such an approach allows Lemonade to go deeper into an area and set up vertical integration by teaming with local farmers.
Opening stores outside bountiful Southern California may present some complexities as to what’s in season, but Olsen says that if the brand can do it in Dubai, it can do it in Texas or New York.
“The world has become a small village. You can find fresh and available produce no matter where you go,” he says. “There are sustainable farmers everywhere. We will find the best produce available and focus on being regional and seasonal.”
He says in five years the goal is to have 75–100 Lemonade units up and running.
“Our growth plans aren’t centered around numbers, but what type of operation this can become,” Olsen says. “We want to build a heritage concept—something we can stand by that has been done the right way.”