Dallas seems to be the new destination for "healthy" restaurants, with a new chain called LYFE Kitchen about to join an already-busy scene. LYFE will open three area locations in the coming months: Plano, Preston Center and West Village.
LYFE is an acronym for "Love Your Food Everyday," and it's a fast-casual concept where everything on the menu is 600 calories or less. It was launched in 2011 by a group of food industry veterans, including Oprah Winfrey personal chef Art Smith and former McDonald's executives Michael Donahue and Mike Roberts.
"We're not preachy," says co-founder Michael Donahue. "We want you to have a great-tasting meal."
There are currently four branches: the original in Palo Alto, two in Southern California and one in Chicago.
Signature dishes include edamame hummus, corn chowder, kale Caesar salad and a Gardein "chicken" version of Art Smith's famous fried chicken. The menu features grass-fed beef, a gluten-free menu, and numerous vegan options created by noted vegan chef Tal Ronnen. His creations include a teriyaki bowl with Gardein "beef tips" and a creamy corn chowder.
The first DFW location is scheduled to open June 7 at 1900 Preston Rd. in Plano. The Preston Center branch has a June 21 opening date; the West Village restaurant is slated to open mid-July.
LYFE follows Seasons 52, which came to the Dallas area in 2010, and True Food Kitchen, which opened in Preston Center in fall 2013. LYFE Kitchen co-founder Michael Donahue says that Dallas, despite its reputation for steakhouses, met a few key parameters.
"We use a sophisticated real estate process, but the three locations in Texas all fit our screens," he says. "We hope to have 250 branches in five years, but you have to start where you believe you have the most chance of success.
"In the three Dallas locations, the consumer is active, and the community has a lot going on. For example, the one in Plano is by a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's, so there's synergy."
The "healthy" restaurant wave seems to rebuff the tendency among consumers who say they want to eat healthy but then in practice make unhealthy choices.
Compared to competitors such as True Food Kitchen, LYFE is quite a bit cheaper, with a dish like barramundi clocking in at $12.99.
"Consumers have been asking for this for a long time," Donahue says. "There are billions of dollars spent on food that is healthy, but it's not a one-stop shop, whether it's Whole Foods or Jenny Craig."
But Donahue says that LYFE accomplishes one simple thing: The food tastes good.
"We spent a year on a taste quest with the king of Southern cooking, Art Smith," he says. "He's known for his fried chicken, mac and cheese, but also for working with Oprah providing the turkey meat loaf she used to love. He had gone through his own transformation. He lost 100-some pounds."
They devised recipes that had flavor without using butter, cream or sodium, and they tested the food in focus groups, primarily "women and moms," Donahue says. Another big part of their approach is to go soft-sell.
"I think people are more open to something when it's warm and inviting," he says. "We're not preachy. We want you to have a great-tasting meal.
"But we believe in indulgence. We have a chocolate budini mousse dessert; it's a fluffy chocolate mousse that's under 200 calories. We have burgers and steak, but they're grass-fed."
They may not be preachy, but they follow a "wellness" approach to everything they do, from seeking out biodynamic wine and serving wine on tap to recycling and using recycled products. "We think about that with every decision we make," Donahue says.
Although he prefers to play down his McDonald's background, some of that company's practices surface. "Our serving times are 10 minutes," he says. "We're creating a new category that's somewhere between fast food and fast casual."
Compared to competitors such as True Food Kitchen, LYFE is quite a bit cheaper, with a dish like barramundi clocking in at $12.99. Another big difference between LYFE and its competitors comes in the area of transparency. Tracking down figures on calories and sodium at True Food Kitchen is a challenge, while LYFE posts its information.
"The idea is bring non-believers in," Donahue says. "People are so used to their routines. But LYFE is unique, and that's what a lot of people love about it."