First impressions: LYFE Kitchen

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

LYFE Kitchen’s farro-and-beet salad in the foreground, with the sweet corn chowder on the right, baby kale salad above, and the bottom of my glass of chia water just visible in the upper left corner,. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

On our recent West coast trip, J, I and the friends who hosted us in the Bay Area (thanks again, V & E!) had lunch at LYFE Kitchen. I first learned about the restaurant from an article by Mark Bittman that I blogged about as our trip got underway. In his piece on whether good fast food might be possible, Bittman describes the LYFE Kitchen concept and team:

In Culver City, I visited Lyfe Kitchen (that’s “Love Your Food Everyday”; I know, but please keep reading). Lyfe has the pedigree, menu, financing, plan and ambition to take on the major chains. The company is trying to build 250 locations in the next five years, and [industry trade magazine] QSR has already wondered whether it will become the “Whole Foods of fast food.”

At Lyfe, the cookies are dairy-free; the beef comes from grass-fed, humanely raised cows; nothing weighs in at more than 600 calories; and there’s no butter, cream, white sugar, white flour, high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats. The concept was the brainchild of the former Gardein executive and investment banker Stephen Sidwell, who quickly enlisted Mike Roberts, the former global president of McDonald’s, and Mike Donahue, McDonald’s U.S.A.’s chief of corporate communications. These three teamed up with Art Smith, Oprah’s former chef, and Tal Ronnen, who I believe to be among the most ambitious and talented vegan chefs in the country.

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

In his feature on LYFE for Wired magazine, Frederick Kaufman briefly describes some of Roberts’s work at Mickey D’s before he left:

[T]he young Roberts launched himself into a 29-year career at McDonald’s, culminating in three years as president of American operations and then two more as president of the whole corporation. During his years as a top executive, Roberts often tried to push the chain toward healthier fare, such as mango strips, slinky-shaped carrots, and yogurt. At one point he even explored the possibility of a vegan McNugget. (“People would look at him like he was a Cyclops,” Donahue says.) …

On the journey that Roberts wants to take, organic food producers and Lyfe Kitchen will travel toward a realm of financial and foodie triumph. Success will be based on the strict market discipline that made fast food possible in the first place, a drill that can now extend beyond commodity beef, commodity wheat, commodity soybean oil, commodity sugar, and commodity potatoes. Market research Roberts did at McDonald’s convinced him that mothers, the dominant decisionmakers about mealtimes, are more focused than ever on healthy food. So this time around, brussels sprouts and quinoa will enter the picture. This time around, the end result—the food—will look and smell and taste more like an entré from some bistro in Brooklyn than a 30-second stop along Fast-Food Alley. But the process will be roughly the same, in that the problems of enormous scale can be solved through similar uses of technology, efficiency, and experience. “I would say that the pattern of this mosaic is very familiar,” Roberts says. “The strategy of the rollout, the people and their skill sets, the systems of training and hiring and finance and accounting and supply chain, the development of the property and real estate system—they are all very similar.”

In other words, Roberts will take all the tricks he learned from old-style fast food and apply them to the next phase of American eating.

Kaufman’s full piece is worth a read: check it out here.

The Culver City restaurant that Mark Bittman visited was the company’s second; the Palo Alto store I visited was the very first. They’re building company-owned stores and also pursing a McDonald’s-like franchise model. Franchisees will be glad for company support, since outfitting these restaurants isn’t cheap. (Kaufman’s article provides a good overview of the computer-choreographed system in the LYFE Kitchen kitchen.) As Lisa Jennings reports for the trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News,

The estimated buildout cost for a LYFE Kitchen unit is about $1.5 million, including kitchen equipment.

LYFE Kitchen is known for its use of state-of-the-art energy-efficient equipment, which is a key component of the systems that allow for the cooking of fresh food in house consistently. A turbo combine oven, for example, allows operators to turn out the concept’s signature Brussels sprouts the same way every time, [Donahue] said.

While Chicago — where LYFE Kitchen is based — will be home to the first franchise location, Donahue said the company is eager to line up operators in Colorado, in particular, where they feel the brand will be embraced by diners in cities like Denver and Boulder.

The company is also working to develop relationships with farmers in the territories targeted so restaurants can deliver on the promise to use local ingredients where possible.

Interesting to see efforts to extend the McDonald’s model into fresh veggies, no?

But enough about the business side of things. How’s the food, and what are the prices like? Let’s start with Bittman’s take:

I sampled across the menu and came away impressed. There are four small, creative flatbread pizzas under $10; one is vegan, two are vegetarian and one was done with chicken. I tasted terrific salads, like a beet-and-farro one ($9) that could easily pass for a starter at a good restaurant, and breakfast selections, like steel-cut oatmeal with yogurt and real maple syrup ($5) and a tofu wrap ($6.50), were actually delicious.

Lyfe, not unlike life, isn’t cheap. The owners claim that an average check is “around $15” but one entree (roast salmon, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, miso, etc.) costs exactly $15. An “ancient grain” bowl with Gardein “beef tips” costs $12, which seems too much. Still, the salmon is good and the bowl is delicious, as is a squash risotto made with farro that costs $9 — or the price of a “chickin” sandwich at Veggie Grill or a couple of Tendercrisp sandwiches at Burger King….

Lyfe isn’t vegan, so much as protein-agnostic. You can get a Gardein burger or a grass-fed beef burger, “unfried” chicken or Gardein “chickin.” You can also get wine (biodynamic), beer (organic) or a better-than-it-sounds banana-kale smoothie. However, I fear that Lyfe’s ambition, and its diverse menu, will drive up equipment and labor costs, and that those costs are going to keep the chain from appealing to less-affluent Americans. You can get a lot done in a franchise system, but its main virtues are locating the most popular dishes, focusing on their preparation and streamlining the process. My hope is that Lyfe will evolve, as all businesses do, by a process of trial and error, and be successful enough that they have a real impact on the way we think of fast food.

By and large, I wholeheartedly agree. Some of the food was super tasty. I ordered the beet-and-farro salad that Bittman enjoyed so much, and it was probably the best thing on the table. I’d happily order it again; drop the price by a dollar or two and I’d probably eat it weekly. Runner up? Those signature Brussels sprouts and butternut squash, garnished with craisins. J also enjoyed his meatless-sausage and mozzarella ravioli, though at $12, it was overpriced and too dainty a portion for a guy who was trying to put away some fuel for an impending squash game. Alas, the sweet corn chowder ($4) was generic, and everyone else hated the cardboard-like crust on the flatbread so much that I didn’t even bother trying it. I liked the banana-kale smoothie more than J and E, but it too was pricey at $5, and the $3 baby kale salad also needs to come down a bit in price if this model is to catch on. I thought the nicest surprise was the LYFE Chia water for just $1: a tasty, refreshing treat comprising “Filtered Water with Chia Seeds, Strawberries, Ginger, Mint, and Lime” and only 63 calories. Here in Madison we’ve long been home to a number of stores from Noodles and Company, the very successful and (compared to LYFE Kitchen) very affordable quick-casual restaurant. No doubt building a menu off cheap, processed grains helps Noodles keeps costs down, but it strikes me that LYFE Kitchen would do well to figure out what Noodles is doing right and apply some of that to their own model to help ensure their success.

LYFE's signature Brussels sprouts with butternut squash and cranberries. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

LYFE’s signature Brussels sprouts with butternut squash and cranberries. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

LYFE Kitchen's "sausage" and mozzarella ravioli. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

LYFE Kitchen’s “sausage” and mozzarella ravioli. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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