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LYFE Kitchen tests branded grocery items

LYFE Kitchen Retail chief executive Stephen Sidwell discusses the brand’s growth with Nation’s Restaurant News

Six months after the first LYFE Kitchen opened in Palo Alto, Calif., the company has big growth plans — not only for more restaurants, but also a potential line of branded grocery products.

LYFE Kitchen (the name stands for “Love Your Food Everyday”) was founded in October 2011 by former McDonald’s executive Mike Roberts and investment banker Stephen Sidwell. The concept aims to carve out a niche within the fast-casual segment for healthful fare. All dishes are under 600 calories, low in sodium, and use organic and local ingredients where possible.

This month, LYFE jumped to grocery aisles with a test of six retail products in 20 Costco stores in Northern California. Dishes include Thai coconut curry with a basil yogurt jasmine rice blend; chimichurri beef with ancient grain risotto; and chicken masala with a cilantro yogurt basmati rice blend. Three soups are also being tested: sweet corn chowder with smoky chipotle croutons, smoky tomato bisque with spicy herb croutons, and turkey bean soup with zesty andouille-spiced croutons.

Sidwell, who is chief executive of LYFE Kitchen Retail, the division overseeing grocery product development, spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News on Wednesday about plans for expansion.

How is business at the restaurant?

We are thrilled with the direction we’re getting from the consumer. They have rewarded us with very nice numbers in the restaurant. We really feel like the brand has struck a chord and is resonating well with consumers, and the feedback we get says that. It gives us the confidence to move forward with the retail program.

Tell me about LYFE Kitchen’s grocery products.

We’re doing a test program in 20 Northern California Costco locations. We have six items that we’re launching, though not all six will be in all stores. There are three family meals and three soups. One is our sweet corn chowder, which is one of the top sellers at the restaurant and kind of a signature item. So that’s translating beautifully to retail.

Many restaurant chains launch retail products to extend brand awareness, but LYFE Kitchen is still an emerging brand. Why take this step so early?

People say that this seems to be so counterintuitive to what everyone’s done in past. Our response is that we believe there’s a need for this kind food — great tasting, good for you food — in retail as much as there is a need for it in the restaurant world. We believe there’s consumer demand for it. It has tested very successfully in the restaurant, and now we think it’s ready for retail.

This also allows us to bring our food, our brand, to the country a lot quicker than we would be able to with a restaurant roll out. If all goes well, we’ll expand to more Costco locations, and we may be speaking to other grocers as well. This allows us to move across the country in as soon as a year.

Are the items licensed products?

It’s a co-pack or a manufacturing arrangement. We designed a program to use existing manufacturers across the country that we could work with to help us build the brand and get these products to customers across country. We’ll have products from the bakery section to refrigerated, and in future even frozen items, as well as produce and salads.

What are growth plans for the restaurant?

The plan from the beginning was to open one and make sure the model worked. We wanted to see if the customer reaction was positive and it resonated and that it would have the financial performance necessary to grow. All of that has been the case, so we’re aggressively pursuing more locations in Northern California and Southern California as well.

We hope to have two to four [new restaurants] by the end of 2013. Once we’ve got four to six more restaurants working well, then we would look at national growth.

Is the company considering franchising?

We haven’t made that decision yet. For the early stage, it will be corporate growth only, but we’re strongly considering franchising down the road.

Can you provide more details about the restaurant’s sales?

I can’t be more specific on numbers. I could say we are about 20 percent over good projections.

What are top sellers on the menu?

Art’s unfried chicken with Brussels sprouts is a huge favorite. We’re selling a lot of Brussels sprouts as a result of that dish and others. Who would’ve known that people really liked Brussels sprouts?

Our fish tacos and sweet corn chowder are top sellers. We have a cucumber mint drink that’s a big seller. But we still sell an awful lot of burgers and flatbreads.

RELATED10 ‘green’ things at LYFE Kitchen

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

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