Mike Donahue hears it all the time.
He’s a partner and chief communications officer for Lyfe Kitchen, the high-powered, health-oriented franchise of fast-casual restaurants expanding around the country. He also spent 20 years as an executive with McDonald’s, and Lyfe Kitchen’s president and CEO Mike Roberts was McDonald’s global president and COO for three decades.
So how can these guys go from the world’s biggest fast-food company to starting a new brand of restaurants where every dish has fewer than 600 calories?
Donahue doesn’t want to talk about “the old place.” He worked on and defended McDonald’s moves to foods like grilled chicken and yogurt, and considers Lyfe Kitchen a continuation of work done there. But it’s much bigger than that.
“Our mind-set is that we’re taking on the biggest un-met consumer need in America,” Donahue says. “It’s about trust. It’s really not typical consumer behavior to scour labels for ingredients. We want to make those decisions easier, and we think it resonates because it’s not preachy and the emphasis is on taste.”
Lyfe Kitchen is up and running in Southern California and Chicago, and is set to open at the District in Green Valley Ranch in Henderson on July 1. Scan the menu and you’ll find dishes that seem healthy and indulgent, from quinoa buttermilk pancakes to chipotle potato hash. There is meat, like the unfried buffalo chicken strips, along with non-meat option Gardein. Donahue says it’s “protein agnostic.”
Health-conscious restaurants are booming these days, and that includes here in Las Vegas. But Lyfe Kitchen is aiming for the mass market and has the firepower to back its ambitious expansion plans. Its corporate culinary team includes Oprah pal and Top Chef Masters contestant Art Smith; Tal Ronnen, the chef who created the mandatory vegan menus at Steve Wynn’s restaurants; and recent Chopped champion Jeremy Bringardner as executive chef.
Industry magazine QSR calls it the Whole Foods of fast food. One of Lyfe Kitchen’s marketing slogans is: “One bite. Everything changes.”
“It’s not a fad,” Donahue says. “You jump in a car with your buddies to go out to eat, and you’re going to try this place once you get past the misperception that healthy food doesn’t taste good. You’ll have a grass-fed burger and you can’t believe what you’re eating. You’ll have the most robust corn chowder soup and just devour it thinking it’s all cream and butter, but the reality is Tal has created this recipe from cashew cream and it’s under 200 calories.”
The District won’t be the only local home for Lyfe Kitchen. The company is looking at two or three other locations around the Valley while also expanding soon to Texas and Colorado.