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Behind Oprah Winfrey’s True Food Kitchen investment

CEO Christine Barone outlines what the mogul’s role will mean for the brand

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey’s recent investment in True Food Kitchen and role on its board will help the company hone its lifestyle positioning, according to company CEO Christine Barone.

Christine Barone
Photo: True Food Kitchen

Barone said Winfrey, who has investments in television, movies and publishing, will collaborate with the Phoenix, Ariz.-based casual-dining company’s management team to sharpen True Food Kitchen’s business and marketing objectives.

Barone said the company, which now has 23 restaurants in 10 states, plans to double its unit count over the next three years, with openings planned later this year in Nashville, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla. 

True Food Kitchen’s major owners are private-equity firm Centerbridge Partners and concept founder Fox Restaurant Concepts.

Barone spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the new equity investment — which came after the CEO had several months of talks with Winfrey and eventually lunch at her Montecito, Calif., home — as well as what’s new at the brand.

What advantage does a celebrity investment give a brand like True Food Kitchen?

We are in particular excited about Ms. Winfrey’s passion for the brand and that she wants us to accelerate the development and bring the brand to more guests. She has many, many fans, and we hope this discovery of us that she has made will help many of her fans discover us as well.

What else will she add for the brand?

She’s very intentional about how she wants to spend her time. Coming on with the dedication to serve on our board of directors and to be an important part of our growth and contribute to our future is a huge deal for us. … She will be our eighth board member.

What did you have for lunch when you dined at Winfrey’s property?

We had some amazing healthy food. And I will leave it at that for now. Like myself, but on a broader scale, she has a true passion for gardening. I was very excited to share some of the food from her garden. 

What have been the biggest changes over the two years you’ve been with True Food Kitchen as CEO?

Many things have stayed the same. Dr. Andrew Weil, [the anti-inflammatory diet advocate] who is the basis for our menu, is still heavily involved in the culinary development and working with our chef team. What has changed is we have brought on a full leadership team dedicated to True Food Kitchen and obviously have expanded across the country in the past two years. We have guests who have become much more aware of what they eat and how the ingredients are prepared, which has been great for True Food Kitchen. We ended last year with double-digit same-store sales [increases], which is pretty unique in the restaurant industry. 

What are other areas of focus?

Not only are we consumed with how our guests experience the restaurant inside the restaurant, but we are also really thoughtful that a lot of guests want to experience our food in their homes. We’ve been trying to make that easier for everyone.

How are you handling delivery?

We have a national partnership with DoorDash. And we also have a really strong takeout business. We want to make sure our guests can have our food the way they want it, whether its catering to an allergy or taking the food away from the restaurant. 

What percentage of your sales are off-premise?

It varies a lot by restaurant. It’s an area of the business we jump-started this year. I will share that we have some restaurants where more than 20 percent of the sales are off-premise. The world we live in is changing.

What’s next for True Food Kitchen?

Many things. We’re continuing to open new restaurants. We continue to work with Dr. Weil to bring more great ingredients to the menu, many for what you might find for the first time. We are looking forward to launching online ordering later this year. And we continue to innovate in the bar area, making everything from scratch.

What are some of the new ingredients on the menu?

In spring, we launched for the first time black walnuts, which are great for cardiovascular and mental health. And this summer in the bar, we will have a focus on lavender. Across the menu, we are starting to look at incorporating more fermented foods, so we have a Korean Noodle Salad with fermented kimchi cucumbers. Dr. Weil has for a while wanted us to have Forbidden Black Rice, so we will have a summer berry dessert with black rice as the base.

How have you managed the culinary offerings?

Our corporate chef joined us earlier this year. His name is Robert McCormick, and he most recently was vice president of culinary at Dean & DeLuca and prior to that was with [chef] Daniel Boulud. He has an incredible passion for this lifestyle and is an amazing chef. We have gifted executive chefs in all of our restaurants. With the mix of produce, which is more temperamental than other ingredients, our executive chefs are gifted at determining when the tomato is just right.

How many units are you planning to open this year?

We’ve opened two so far and plan to open two more before the year ends. We’ll end the year at 25. 

With that growth, how do you use collected data?

As we continue to scale, we are focused on what data can be used to better manage the restaurants, such as party size. … There is more data than there has ever been, but the hard part is sorting through it to find what is meaningful to your business. 

What kind of real estate do you target?

We target around 6,000 square feet with a large patio. And we try, including the patio, to have over 200 seats in the restaurants. We are also incredibly flexible. As we look at real estate, what is most important is a community that feels like the right fit for True Food Kitchen. We don’t have a cookie-cutter box at all. 

And how do you see True Food Kitchen fitting in its new communities?

As we grow, my goal is to make us even more special. Part of the way we do that is with community gatherings in our restaurants, such as yoga classes or gardening classes. That’s a piece we look forward to continuing, enriching the communities we move into. 

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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