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LYFE Kitchen cofounder and chief brand officer Mike Donahue says the growing concept offers convenient, affordable, great-tasting food that just happens to be healthy.
“I don’t lead with the ‘H’ word,” he says. “People interested in healthy eating will find us.”
But the “H” word is what sets LYFE Kitchen apart. Every menu item weighs in at less than 600 calories and less than 1,000 milligrams of sodium. Donahue says LYFE Kitchen replaces sodium, cream, butter, and sugar with natural ingredients. The vegetables served are organic when commercially available and local whenever seasonally possible. Meats are free of antibiotics and hormones and are approved by the Global Animal Partnership.
LYFE Kitchen offers a vegan and vegetarian menu, a gluten-free menu, and a flexitarian “Everything” menu.
“LYFE is an acronym for ‘Love Your Food Every Day,’” Donahue says. “So we make sure we have something for everybody. We’re not preachy. We want people to discover us and be surprised and delighted.”
Donahue, a former McDonald’s executive, started LYFE Kitchen in 2011 with former McDonald’s COO Mike Roberts and Stephen Sidwell, a former executive at Gardein, a plant-protein food producer. In 2014, Carlisle Corporation, a Memphis, Tennessee–based Wendy’s franchisee, became a minority stakeholder. Carlisle Corporation president Chance Carlisle became CEO of LYFE Kitchen, and its corporate headquarters relocated to Memphis.
The founders’ decades of fast-food experience contributed to developing LYFE Kitchen’s systems, processes, and brand, but the menu is chef-driven like that of a fine-dining restaurant. It features dishes created by Art Smith, former personal chef to Oprah Winfrey, as well as renowned vegan chef Tal Ronnen and executive chef Jeremy Bringardner.
CEO: Chance Carlisle
Cofounder/Chief Brand Officer: Mike Donahue
HQ: Memphis, Tennessee
Year Started: 2011
Annual Sales: $2.5–$3 million per restaurant
Total Units: 16
Franchise Units: 3
LYFE Kitchen menu staples include Sweet Corn Chowder, the Quinoa Crunch Bowl salad, a vegan Garden Burger, and a grass-fed beef burger. There are flatbreads with various toppings, fish tacos made with grilled mahi mahi, and Art’s Unfried Chicken, a crispy chicken breast that’s air-baked instead of fried. There are no fryers on the LYFE Kitchen premises.
“We invested in equipment like our combi ovens that use air- and electric-baking technology to make Chef Art’s chicken in six or seven minutes,” Donahue says. “Such technology allows us to cook food like your mother or grandmother made in the speed of today’s market.”
Donahue says 97 percent of LYFE Kitchen orders are on the table in less than 10 minutes. He calls LYFE Kitchen a hybrid of fast casual and fine dining.
Guests order at the counter and get a GPS tracker to help the staff find the customer’s table once their food is ready. Customers can also add to their order without having to leave the table, thanks to hospitality ambassadors.
Even with a health-focused menu approved by a panel of wellness experts, dessert is available. The Chocolate Budino is like a mousse but made with pomegranate juice and chia seeds. It comes in at less than 200 calories. And while soft drinks are nowhere to be found, LYFE Kitchen offers organic coffee and tea, fresh-squeezed orange juice and lemonade, and various infused waters like Orange Ginger Chia and Cucumber Mint. Organic wines and local beers are served at all locations.
The first LYFE Kitchen was located in health-conscious Palo Alto, California. After using that store as an incubator for two years, a second LYFE Kitchen opened in Culver City, California, in 2013. Since then, the concept has expanded in California and moved into Texas, New York, Colorado, Nevada, and Illinois.
The three Chicago-area restaurants are the company’s first real attempt at franchised locations. “We’re learning a lot from Chicago, and our goal is to have more franchisees joining the system as we grow,” Donahue says.
The brand is slated to open 10 more locations by the end of 2015. Donahue says the plan is to grow in existing markets as quickly as the infrastructure and supply chain, as well as the customers, allow. Within those markets, LYFE Kitchen will target locations in strong retail and restaurant areas.
Most LYFE Kitchen locations are between 3,300 and 3,500 square feet, with seating for 100–110 guests inside and another 20 on an outside patio. There are several different types of seating, including couches, soft chairs, a community table area, and traditional tables and chairs.
LYFE Kitchen also offers catering, online ordering, and takeout, which Donahue says is already a very significant part of sales in older restaurants.
LYFE Kitchen serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with an all-day per-person check average between $8 and $12.
“At dinner it’s a little higher—probably $12–$18—because we sell beer and wine,” Donahue says.