Former McD exec readies launch of LYFE Kitchen

Mike Roberts, a former president and chief operating officer of McDonald’s Corp., is preparing to debut the first location of a health-focused, fast-casual concept called LYFE Kitchen in August.

LYFE, which is an acronym for “Love Your Food Everyday,” is being developed by Roberts together with investment banker Stephen Sidwell, who also is an investor in Garden Protein International, the Canada-based company that produces Gardein, a meat-free protein line.

In preparation for its debut, the operators of LYFE introduced champion swimmer Janet Evans as a brand ambassador Tuesday in the first public event for the concept.

Hoping to become a national chain offering “guilt-free fast food,” LYFE is expected to open its inaugural location in Palo Alto, Calif. It will feature menu items containing fewer than 600 calories, no trans fats, all natural ingredients and little-to-no dairy products. The selections, none of which will be fried, also are designed to be low in sodium.

LYFE Kitchen’s menu is being developed by consulting chefs Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey’s former personal chef, and Tal Ronnen, the executive chef for Gardein, both of whom are known for promoting healthful eating.

Smith and Ronnen each hold a minority interest in LYFE.

The brand is following in the footsteps of a growing number of health-focused concepts, including the full-service concepts Seasons 52, owned by Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc., and True Foods Kitchen, by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Fox Restaurant Concepts.

Michael Donahue, another former longtime McDonald’s executive who also is a partner in LYFE and the concept’s chief communications officer, said the event Tuesday with Evans aims to position the yet-to-open restaurant as a “lifestyle brand” with cross-channel potential.

Evans, a five-time Olympic medalist, announced the launch of LYFE's National Mom Advisory Panel — a page borrowed from Roberts’ time at McDonald’s before he resigned in 2006.

The panel reinforces the LYFE concept’s plan to target women — those who typically serve as restaurant decision makers in most families. McDonald’s launched its global mom panel in 2006 to advise the quick-service giant on communicating with families and the well being of children to build appeal with women.

LYFE’s initiative included reaching out to a network of “mommy bloggers” attending Tuesday’s event. Evans offered the bloggers fitness tips and launched a social media campaign on Facebook asking moms for input on how LYFE can better serve their families’ health and nutrition needs.

“With my two young children along with working out daily in the pool, I know first hand the struggles of balancing packed schedules and the ‘family feuds’ that can arise during mealtimes,” Evans said in a statement. “I want to be part of LYFE Kitchen to be the voice for moms who are looking for good-tasting, healthy food choices to ease some of the stresses of their busy lives.”

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, LYFE will offer classic grass-fed beef burgers alongside meat-free products, as well as dishes ranging from “unfried” chicken, to a seafood chowder made with cashew milk instead of cream and butter.

Beer and wine will be on the menu, said Donahue, who served as chief communications officer for McDonald’s USA. LYFE also will highlight locally grown and sustainably raised produce where possible, following in the footsteps of Chipotle Mexican Grill’s Food With Integrity emphasis, he said. Chipotle was owned by McDonald’s during Roberts’ tenure with the burger chain.

The average check for LYFE is expected to fall between $8 and $12 at lunch and $12 and $15 at dinner, Donahue said.

The first unit will be about 3,500-square feet and be housed in the ground floor of an office building. The restaurant will seat around 120 with an outdoor patio. Although the first location will not offer a drive thru, future locations will, as real estate allows. The concept also will offer curbside pick up and delivery.

Donahue would “neither confirm nor deny” earlier reports that LYFE executives would like to open as many as 250 units within the first five years, saying the company is not ready to discuss its growth strategy.

However, he said LYFE has completed a first round of funding, saying that the concept has received much interest from private-equity investors already.

For now, potential private-equity investors are getting “a polite stiff arm” until after the first location opens, Donahue said. “But after that, it’s ‘Katie, bar the door.’”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected] [3]
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout [4]