Art Smith could be a poster child for LYFE Kitchen, a new brand banking on the notion that people want to take control of their lives and eat better. Two years ago, diabetic and wrestling with off-the-chart blood sugar levels, the 51-year-old had a wakeup call. Smith, known for his Table Fifty-Two and Art and Soul restaurants in Chicago and Washington, DC (and for being one-time personal chef to Oprah Winfrey) hired a health coach who steered him toward a more sensible diet and pushed him to exercise. His weight gradually dropped from 324 pounds to just over 200, he reversed the symptoms of diabetes and his cholesterol numbers plunged.
At about the same time, investment banker Steve Sidwell was having his own epiphany. He, too, had cleaned up his diet and slimmed down, and he figured there was a demand for a restaurant concept that could help others do the same. He approached former McDonald's global president/c.o.o. Mike Roberts and fellow McDonald's veteran Mike Donahue to help design a concept; they, in turn, looked to Smith for help.
“We knew him from before, and we knew one thing he understood was taste,” says Donahue, now chief communications officer for what came to be known as LYFE (Love Your Food Everyday) Kitchen. “He was the king of comfort food and fried chicken. Everybody knew about him. We also knew he was going through a personal transformation. He also gets that food needs to taste good to sell.”
Smith was smitten with the idea.
“I've cooked for all these famous people, but what bothered me was that I wasn't making food for people really in need of something like this,” Smith recalls. When he heard the pitch, he eagerly signed on. “I told (Roberts), ‘if you don't do this, someone else will.’”
It took a year or so of tinkering with flavor profiles and ingredients to produce a menu of items under 600 calories with no genetically modified or processed ingredients or additives. Butter, cream, high fructose corn syrup and fried foods are absent, and sodium levels tend to be low. And, thanks to the input of a second executive chef, vegetarian expert Tal Ronnen — creator of Winfrey's “vegan cleanse” — a good portion of the menu is vegetarian-friendly.
Who is the target audience for this product? Sidwell, Roberts and crew see a huge unsatisfied demand for healthy, affordable prepared foods. And they believe a majority of those hungry for something better happen to be female. “Whether it's the First Lady or the principal of the school or the significant other at home, food is something everybody is talking about,” says Roberts, now c.e.o. “The audience we are pursuing to be our raving fans is women 18 to 49 years old.
“These women are busy, active, well-read and concerned about what they are eating and serving at home. If they are single, they worry about how they look and feel, their energy and working out,” Roberts adds.
While females may be the main target, LYFE Kitchen's menu is designed to have universal appeal, with classic burgers, chicken, seafood and other familiar choices. On a recent visit to the first unit, in Palo Alto, CA, a broad mix of young, mature, male and female guests shared the busy dining room.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
One habit Roberts and Donohue brought from McDonald's is a tendency to test something before rolling it out to the public. “It all starts with the focus on the customer. What exactly does he or she want, and how can we meet their expectations?” Roberts says. So the team devoted a lot of time and energy to perfecting the details before its recent debut. Besides spending about a year on recipe development, LYFE Kitchen conducted about 20 consumer tastings to explore the menu, name, style of service, price points and design.
Feedback from the tests validated the original idea for the concept. Potential guests repeatedly mentioned how the market lacked choices for good-for-you, good-tasting food, quickly served at affordable prices.
In keeping with the healthful philosophy, the brand made sure to cover all the socially responsible bases: The design incorporates eco-friendly building materials; green packaging is used for takeout; biodynamic wines are poured from kegs, not bottles; and LYFE Kitchen is committed to supporting local charities.
The tweaking isn't over. The brand recently announced that it has assembled a wellness and health advisory panel to help steer development going forward. Panelists, including former NFL players, Olympic gold medal swimmer Janet Evans, and physicians, along with Smith and Ronnen. They have been asked to “lend their voices and recommendations on issues relating to wellness, health and lifestyle” to LYFE Kitchen and to “expand and explore the national dialogue around the health and nutrition potential of food.”
Arguably the biggest challenges to expansion is the promise of a menu dependent on freshly prepared and “responsibly sourced” ingredients, Smith says. “Much of the country is devoid of fresh food, which is a problem,” he notes. “There's a lot of talk about food deserts. There may be food deserts in Chicago, but there are food deserts in the heartland as well.” A central commissary serving multiple units may be a solution, he says.
Roberts isn't yet ready to speculate on how big he expects LYFE Kitchen to be, but with all the planning that went into the first test unit, clearly he's got high expectations. The plan short-term is to branch out within Northern California, but beyond that Roberts isn't willing to offer specifics.
Retail looms as another expansion path.
“The same consumer who expressed a desire to have this kind of food more available and the stress about what to prepare exists in the grocery store,” Roberts points out. The brand is exploring tests with grocery chains to sell LYFE-branded items like home meal replacements, breads, olive oils and more.
On the Menu
Farm fresh organic eggs, turkey sausage, tomatoes, arugula, and cheddar cheese on a whole-wheat english muffin, with garden fresh salsa, served with fruit salad $5.99
Sweet Corn Chowder
Made with cashew cream, chopped herbs and multigrain croutons $3.99
Tal's Ancient Grains Bowl
Stir-fried Gardein tips and vegetables over whole-grain farro and quinoa with sweet chile-ginger sauce $7.79
Art's Unfried Chicken Breast
With roasted winter squash, brussels sprouts, dried cranberries and dijon vinaigrette $11.99
With steamed edamame, napa cabbage, baby spinach, roasted onions and scallions in a wild mushroom broth $11.99