Move over, Big Mac: LYFE Kitchen plans to bring health to fast food

Move over, Big Mac: LYFE Kitchen plans to bring health to fast food

Two former McDonald’s execs team up with an Oprah celebrity chef to launch healthy fast food chain. Consumers applaud the concept, but will sourcing issues slow LYFE’s expansion plans or force it to backpedal on its sustainability goals?

The healthy revolution in the fat- and sodium-filled world of fast food is set to receive a shot of adrenaline this summer when a former McDonald’s executive, two celebrity chefs and an investment banker open LYFE Kitchen. The new chain is the latest in a growing list of restaurants featuring healthful food at affordable prices and via a convenient “fast casual” format.

Based in Chicago, LYFE—which stands for Love Your Food Everyday—is set to open its first restaurant in Palo Alto, California, in June. This will be followed by the opening of several additional Northern California locations and eventually as many as 250 additional LYFE Kitchen restaurants nationwide over the next five years, the Chicago Tribune reports. The business is being run by former McDonald’s President and COO Mike Roberts and investment banker Stephen Sidwell, who have paired up with former Oprah personal chef Art Smith and Tal Ronnen, a well-known vegan and vegetarian chef.

"With two celebrated, taste-making chefs and a talented team of leaders and advisers, we believe LYFE Kitchen is a response to one of America's most significant unmet needs: the consumer's demand for delicious, affordable food that is good for you," said Roberts, who is LYFE’s CEO, in a statement.

LYFE’s vegan-friendly menu will feature oven-baked sweet potato fries; sweet corn chowder with cashew cream, vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh chives; Art’s Unfried Chicken, with all-natural barbeque sauce, roasted kaboucha squash and Brussels sprouts; and wild mushroom flatbread, with goat cheese, aged balsamic, and choice of Italian turkey sausage or Gardein Italian sausage. Burgers will be available, but they will be made from Niman Ranch premium beef and feature romaine, tomato, red onion, agave pickles, agave ketchup, LYFE’s signature sauce and a multi-grain roll.

The Chicago Tribune reports that at LYFE “butter, cream and high-fructose corn syrup are banned, and none of the food is fried.” No dish will have more than 600 calories, the company says, and every menu item will “feature responsibly sourced ingredients, from local farms and sustainable whenever possible, and will rely on herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables to enhance the flavor profile.”

The company is also focused on building a socially responsible brand that is engaged in philanthropy. “We believe it is equally important to serve great-tasting, affordable food that is good for you as it is to serve the community around us,” LYFE writes on its Facebook page.

Consumers plead for LYFE to come to their towns

LYFE has already amassed several hundred fans on its Facebook page, where supporters are praising the company’s mission of offering healthier fast food and begging for LYFE to open in their areas.  “Please oh please come to LaGrange, GA!” posted one fan.

“It’s about time!” wrote another. “We NEED this in Abilene, TX. There is nothing remotely healthy to eat here, when it comes to restaurants. I hope it will be GMO free and all organic. Some gluten free options would be wonderful, as well.”

Yet another fan offered this sensible advice for LYFE: “Price the menu reasonably, and advertise it as heavily and effectively as McDonald’s. Then I’ll start eating out again.”

Will LYFE face sourcing issues?

LYFE is certainly not the first fast-food or fast-casual restaurant to embrace such lofty goals in the areas of healthy eating and sustainable sourcing.

Chipotle Mexican Grill has built a healthy and fast-growing business through its mission of serving “food with integrity.” According to Nutrition Business Journal, Chipotle now operates more than 950 locations and generated more than $1.5 billion in sales in 2009. The company sells more naturally raised meat and poultry than any other restaurant in the United States, and it has been working to increase the amount of natural and organic beans, vegetables and dairy products it uses in its operations.

But has Chipotle and other purveyors of healthy, responsibly produced food have learned, it’s not easy to meet the sourcing needs of a rapidly expanding restaurant chain with locally and sustainably produced ingredients. As Chipotle noted in its 2009 annual report, the supply shortages forced the company to temporarily suspend serving naturally raised chicken in certain limited restaurants and that securing relationships with suppliers who meet its sustainability criteria takes longer and is more expensive than if the company were to work with conventional suppliers.

Still, as NBJ reported in its 2010 Nutrition Industry Overview issue, Chipotle’s commitment to sustainable, healthy ingredients is one of the driving forces behind its success.

Reading the posts on LYFE’s Facebook page illustrate that consumers will support the new restaurant concept—if the company is able to hold to its sourcing and menu plans.

Writes one fan: “Vegetarians and other restricted-diet people who have nearly no fast food options will love you forever if you do this right.”

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