In the nation’s battle against obesity, fast food carries the title of public enemy number one—the calorie-indulgent, fat-peddling, artificial ingredient-powered source of health ills and expanded waistlines.
A former McDonald’s executive, Mike Donahue ’80 is challenging that reality with LYFE Kitchen. An acronym for Love Your Food Everyday, LYFE is in many ways the anti-fast food chain.
The 14-unit fast casual restaurant concept, which Donahue co-founded in 2011, embraces delicious, healthy, and socially responsible dining by eschewing fatty dishes, additives, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms as a partial list of the company’s high standards.
Diners are instead served locally sourced, organic goods, grass-fed beef from humanely raised cattle and free-range chicken. Each restaurant dish weighs in at fewer than 600 calories, as LYFE Kitchen shuns butter, white sugar, white flour, high fructose corn syrup and trans fat.
Nearly four years ago, just as Donahue and his partners readied to launch, one restaurant industry publication headline asked if LYFE Kitchen could be “The Whole Foods of Fast Food?”
Wired magazine wondered if LYFE “might just shift the calculus of American cuisine,” while New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman hoped aloud that LYFE—propelled by the industry pedigree of its leaders and some deep-pocketed investors—would be “successful enough [to] have a real impact on the way we think of fast food.”
“This brand attention all validated our idea … and our mission to change the relationship people have with food,” Donahue said.
Though currently a bit player in the ultra-competitive, $683 billion restaurant game, Donahue embraces the hurdles ahead, energized by the possibilities and confident that his upstart concept will continue to make inroads.
“Before we even started, we believed we would be successful,” Donahue said. “And we will be.”
He speaks with a confidence that was lacking in his earliest days as a communication major at Illinois State. As friends studied finance, education, and biology, Donahue’s classroom lessons on persuasive language and nonverbal communication seemed soft and insignificant in comparison.
Slowly he began to see a bigger picture, stirred by the spirited teachings of communication professors he calls “legends in their field”—Bill Semlak, John Cragan, Mike Shelly and Vince Hazelton. As faculty championed the power of words and confronting conventional thought, Donahue recognized how communication could fuel change. He was energized by how words—not mathematical formulas or algorithms—could spark new realities.
“I was learning how to think. It was all about looking at things in a new way,” he said. “As an Irish-Catholic kid from Rockford, rules were the norm, but these professors encouraged me to take conventional thinking and find intriguing alternative paths.”
Donahue carried those lessons into his professional career, including stints at the National Federation of Independent Business, 3M, and the Illinois Department of Commerce before landing at McDonald’s in 1987.
Over two decades with the Golden Arches, Donahue held several senior management positions related to building, enhancing and protecting the McDonald’s brand—one of the globe’s most iconic trademarks. He crafted working relationships with legislators and regulators, labor groups and trade associations, environmentalists and animal rights activists, eventually forming McDonald’s first social responsibility department. He positioned McDonald’s as an entrepreneurial and credible enterprise committed to corporate responsibility.
“Given its size, McDonald’s was a prominent scapegoat for activist issues. I received the equivalent of a Ph.D. in social responsibility there,” said Donahue, who earned the nickname “The Conductor” for his ability to navigate intense issues up to his retirement in 2006.
While consulting others on branding and marketing, he yearned to build a purpose-driven brand of his own. It was a personal mission he shared with Mike Roberts, former McDonald’s president and LYFE Kitchen co-founder.
“We wanted to create the restaurant of the future,” Donahue said.
Leveraging insights from McDonald’s, technological advances in the kitchen, and consumers’ intensifying itch for healthy fare, the two began envisioning a transformative restaurant concept for a new era. Joining with investors, including the Carlisles—a well known restaurateur and hospitality family from Memphis—the partners gathered a team of premier consultants. Among them was Art Smith, a culinary wizard and former personal chef to Oprah Winfrey.
In October 2011, following a national location search and the review of more than 700 prospective restaurant names, Donahue and his cohorts unveiled the first LYFE Kitchen in Palo Alto, California. The Silicon Valley home put LYFE next to some of the world’s most daring, pioneering enterprises, including Apple, Google and Facebook.
While the idea was simple in words, the operational mission was unapologetically bold in an industry generally thought to favor efficiency and ease over integrity and extra effort: to provide great tasting, good-for-you food that’s affordable, convenient and sustainable.
“We thought about parents hustling kids to games, busy professionals, and all those who crave convenience, value and health, and this is what we believed they would want,” said Donahue, a suburban Chicago resident and father of two teenage boys. “The beauty of LYFE Kitchen is that it feels like everyone’s idea.”
With its menu of $4-$14 dishes, LYFE shatters fast food norms. Breakfast offerings range from a spinach and avocado frittata to quinoa buttermilk pancakes. Lunch and dinner options include flatbreads, salads, chef-inspired entrées such as roasted salmon, Italian sausage and mozzarella ravioli, and Brussels sprouts that Donahue touts as the French fries of the 21st century. LYFE restaurants also feature wine sourced from vineyards committed to sustainable practices and craft beers hatched at local breweries.
The sustainability mission flows from the menu to the feng shui-inspired restaurant design. Construction includes reused, renewable, and recycled materials, while a free standing herb wall educates guests about sustainable food growth. Restaurants even feature health and wellness-fostering elements, such as advanced air purification, water filtration systems, and antimicrobial coatings on common restaurant touchpoints representing what Donahue calls “well buildings” of the future.
“We reach down to very granular levels and there’s no compromising,” said Donahue, who beyond co-founder is the company’s chief brand officer. He communicates LYFE’s story to media, influencers, investors and consumers alike.
Looking to fulfill its company motto—Eat good. Feel good. Do good.—LYFE also dedicates a percentage of its profits to philanthropic causes, particularly those promoting active lifestyles or addressing hunger.
Nation’s Restaurant News, the restaurant industry’s preeminent publication, named LYFE Kitchen one of its five “Hot Concepts” last summer. The annual award recognizes forward-thinking restaurant concepts with intriguing growth potential. In a nod to LYFE’s promise, a number of previous “Hot Concepts” honorees are now household names, including Noodles & Company, Smashburger and Fogo de Chao.
“It’s tangible proof we’re making progress,” Donahue says.
With 14 units in operation at the close of 2014, including two Chicago area locations and one in New York City, LYFE looks to open as many as 250 units over the next five years. While some industry observers question the concept’s expansion prospects given circling challenges around startup costs, broad consumer acceptance, and operational execution, Donahue remains resolute. He trumpets LYFE’s potential to define a new restaurant category: the lifestyle restaurant.
“After all, the best way to predict the future is to create it,” said Donahue, who believes in the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Special thanks to LYFE Kitchen, which provided images of Art’s Unfried Chicken, Brussel Sprouts, Kale-Banana Smoothie, and a Pizzanini.