Lyfe Kitchen has turned to chef Tal Ronnen, center, to develop vegan menu… (William DeShazer, Chicago…)
Fast food without the grease, salt … or guilt?
That's what the entrepreneurs behind Lyfe Kitchen, a proposed fast-food chain slated to open later this summer, are promising customers.
"It's going to be great-tasting, satiating, familiar foods," said the company's chief communications officer, Mike Donahue, "with no [genetically modified foods], no additives, nothing processed and everything under 600 calories." There will be no butter, cream, high fructose corn syrup or fried food, and very little salt, he said, and as many ingredients as possible from local suppliers.
So what will that mean for the hamburger-craving customer?
At Lyfe's first restaurant, which is scheduled to open in Palo Alto on Sept. 19, the Classic Lyfe Burger will be a grass-fed beef patty with pickles and agave-sweetened ketchup on a multigrain bun made with barley, corn and flax seeds. Those eschewing meat can sub in a Gardein brand veggie patty. (Just about every meat item on the menu will also come in a plant-based alternative, Donahue said.)
If you want fries with that, you'll have to make do with oven-baked sweet potato fries — or one of the restaurant's other healthful sides: roasted beets, roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted potatoes, seasonal fresh fruit or an ancient grains bowl (a toss of farro, quinoa and vegetables in ginger sauce).
Donahue and Lyfe Chief Executive Mike Roberts are former McDonald's executives. (Roberts was behind the push to put salads, fruit and yogurt parfaits and apple dippers on that chain's notoriously unhealthful menu nearly a decade ago.) But the menu doesn't sound much like McDonald's fare: steel-cut oatmeal and spinach-and-goat-cheese egg-white frittatas for breakfast; vegan corn chowder and arugula-based farmers market salad for lunch; "unfried" chicken and eggplant parmigiana for dinner; and organic California wine and beer — for somewhere between $4 and $18.
Healthful options top the list of what consumers are looking for in restaurant fare these days, said Joy Dubost, director of nutrition for the National Restaurant Assn. The Washington, D.C.-based group's research shows that 73% of consumers say they now try to choose healthful items when they go out to eat. In response, more restaurant chains have been adding whole-grain breads, low-fat dishes and fruit sides to their menus. A few, including Applebee's and IHOP, have also added lists of menu items that are less than 600 calories, about one-third of the calories in an 1,800- to 2000-calorie-per-day diet.
Nutrition experts express reserved approval — based on what they know so far. But they offer a note of caution or two.
"It all sounds like it's going to be healthful, but I would love to see the nutrition facts for some of these meals," said UC Davis nutrition instructor Liz Applegate. (Complete nutrition facts are not yet available, according to Lyfe representative Caiti Carrow.)
Applegate pointed out that using vegetable oil in place of butter may reduce the saturated fat content of meals, but it might not reduce the total fat. And replacing high fructose corn syrup with agave or other sweeteners may sound nice, but sugar is sugar no matter what you call it, she said. "I don't care if it's organic or natural or not — we all have to watch added sugars in our diet."
Lyfe's chefs — Art Smith, former personal chef to Oprah Winfrey, and famed vegan chef Tal Ronnen — have promised to reduce salt by using a number of spice blends to flavor dishes. But consumers should still keep an eye on the total sodium in the offerings, Applegate said. (The recommended daily limit for children and most adults is 1,500 milligrams or less.) And if the dishes are bland, added UC Davis nutrition professor Judith Stern, customers will reach for the salt anyway. "When people salt food themselves, they always tend to oversalt it," she said.
Whether Lyfe's fast food is bland or delicious remains to be seen. Early news reports announced that the chain would be opening 250 restaurants across the country within the next five years, but Donahue said he could neither confirm nor deny those reports. If the Palo Alto restaurant does well, the company will begin expanding to other locations — but only in Northern California to start, he said.
Applegate, for one, says she hopes the healthful fast-food concept will take off.
"It's a fact of life that we do eat out and we're not going to change that," she said. "So let's have someone who can make healthy meals for us. It's an idea whose time has come."