Healthy Menus

Some parents become expert at giving their children food that tastes so good, they don’t even realize it’s also good for them.

A couple of new restaurant concepts are building their brands around the same notion.

Lyfe Kitchen

“Great-tasting food that’s good for you as well.”

That’s the approach that California-based Lyfe Kitchen adopted, according to co-founder and chief brand officer Mike Donahue. Opening with a restaurant in Palo Alto two years ago, the company expanded in late 2012 with a second spot in Culver City and just cut the ribbon on a new location in Chicago.

 Several more outlets are in the pipeline and the approval process is underway for about 10 additional leases around the nation. The company also produces a line of frozen meals.

Lyfe Kitchen fundamentally remains fashioned after the concept of serving healthy food that tastes good. Executive chefs Art Smith and Tal Ronnen devised dishes that are heavy on natural and organic ingredients, herbs and spices, and sourced locally when possible. There are vegetarian and vegan offerings, many of which are “original cooking,” as Donahue described them.

And all of it is heavily based on fresh produce. Every restaurant features a signature living wall that grows herbs. And fresh cut plays a part when it makes sense for the company.

“The thing we look at first, of course, is quality,” said Jim Campbell, supply chain consultant to Lyfe Kitchen.

First, fresh-cut produce should be of the same or better quality as what the company can do itself.

“We all like to save labor, but the quality has to be there,” Campbell said. “If the quality is there, the next step is the cost. When you start cutting vegetables, there is a yield factor, labor factor, processing factor, additional packaging – all of those things, you have to weigh.”

If a fresh-cut supplier can give more consistency, that’s also a plus.

Early on, Lyfe Kitchen partnered with Earthbound Farms for organic greens and other produce. The company works with other suppliers and distributors as well, and plans to source local growers in each location as it expands. With that in mind, Lyfe Kitchen has hired an outside party to help identify suppliers for commodities as well as fresh-cut items in the various locales.

In the meantime, fresh-cut purchases tend to include diced onions and peppers in a few different sizes. Mushrooms come sliced. Romaine isn’t completely finished, but arrives washed, outer leaves removed, ready to cut.

For a while, Lyfe Kitchen was purchasing jumbo Brussels sprouts, washed and cut in half. They figured out that they could save about 75 percent by buying small Brussels sprouts that didn’t need to be cut, and cleaning them in house.

“It doesn’t always go to processed,” Campbell said. “If we can, anything we can get out of the kitchen at a reasonable price and increase the consistency of quality, those are the key things we are looking for.”

There’s another factor, Donahue said.

“Our number one rule is quality and social responsibility,” he said. “So if we find a supplier, and they’re a little bit more expensive, but their procedures are more environmentally sound and higher quality, we’ll pay a little more in order for it to be the best quality we can.”

Veggie Grill

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based Veggie Grill started out with one simple premise, according to Vice President of Ops Services Scott Nicholson.

“It’s the American food you know and love prepared in a way that is better for you,” Nicholson said.

One of the company founders, partners and “chief foodie” Ray White said he wanted to start the vegan/vegetarian restaurant chain to help combat disease.

“My family have all died early because of heart disease,” said White, who became a vegan 20 years ago. “I saw what it did for me and how it lowered my cholesterol.”

His chronic asthma also went away, he added.

“My two partners (T.K. Pillan and Kevin Boylan) had similar circumstances in their own paths,” he said.

Veggie Grill offers a menu of sandwiches, salads and entrees that are all plant based, but crafted for taste and texture to appeal to non-vegans.

“Trying to get people into a vegan restaurant is a difficult chore because they’re uncomfortable, they don’t know what to do,” said White. “We try to make it as friendly and as inviting as possible. We try to do things that you’re comfortable with, that you are used to having that you grew up with.”

Think vegan versions of fried chicken, burgers and the like. So far, the strategy has been working. Starting out seven years ago with a location at the University of California-Irvine, the company expected to open its 22nd outlet in October 2013.

“Ninety percent (of customers) are meat-eating folks looking for something good to eat – and healthy,” White said. “The vegan vegetarian group is very small … if we had to depend on them, we would probably be three or four stores, maybe.

“But because the public has embraced us, it shows you what they’re looking for.”

And what they’re looking for includes copious amounts of kale.

“We’ve made a name for ourselves in kale salads,” said Nicholson. “We don’t have kale all over the menu, but where we have it, it sells.”

For that reason, kale is the sole item that Veggie Grill brings in fresh cut. Working with Family Tree Produce and fresh-cut processor, Field Fresh Foods in Oxnard, Calif., Veggie Grill sources kale from four locations including Arizona, depending on the time of year. Field Fresh cleans and cuts the kale, which comes to Veggie Grill packed loose in cases, several times a week. With some locations going through as much as 400 pounds of kale a day, and limited refrigeration space, frequent delivery is essential.

“We were doing it all by hand,” White said. “(But) it’s so labor intensive.”

About a year ago, Veggie Grill signed on with Family Tree and Field Fresh.

“With just one person … assigned to cut the kale … it was about five hours,” White said. “It was so labor-intensive for us.

“It just didn’t make much sense.”

Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer

Be sure to check out our other specialty agriculture brands

Organic Grower