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Two Former McDonald's Executives Are Leading A Fast-Food Revolution

LYFE Kitchen
LYFE Kitchen

Facebook/LYFE Kitchen

Two former McDonald's executives are trying to bring kale, quinoa, and other upscale foods to the masses with a health-conscious restaurant chain called LYFE Kitchen.

Mike Roberts, the former global president of McDonald's, teamed up with Stephen Sidwell, who helped found the meat substitute Gardein, and Mike Donahue, McDonald's USA's former chief of corporate communications, to launch LYFE Kitchen three years ago.

The chain, which calls itself "fresh casual," now has 10 locations and ambitious plans to open 250 more within the next five years. Sites of current locations include California, Texas, Colorado, Illinois, and Nevada.

Every dish on the menu is under 600 calories with less than 1,000 milligrams of sodium, and the average check size is $4 to $14, according to the company. Butter, trans fats, white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other food additives are barred from the menu, and locally sourced ingredients are used when available.

The restaurants, which feature indoor herb gardens and bamboo tables, also offer wine on tap and organic beer.

For meat eaters, the chain offers grass-fed beef and chicken. There are also vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options. The menu was built by Food Network star Jeremy Bringardner, vegan chef Tal Ronnen, and Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey's former chef.

The chain's most popular dishes include quinoa buttermilk pancakes with berries and Greek yogurt, "Unfried Chicken" (pictured below) with roasted brussels sprouts, butternut squash, dried cranberries, and cashew cream, and a "Grain Bowl" with stir-fried vegetables and beefless tips served over quinoa, black rice and cilantro with sweet chile-ginger sauce.

Lyfe Kitchen Unfried Chicken
Lyfe Kitchen Unfried Chicken

Facebook/Life Kitchen

Customers order their food at the counter and have the option of taking it to go or sitting at a table, where their food will be served by a waiter.

"Some [customers] want to stay and relax. Others need to move quickly at lunch, so our average serving time is under 10 minutes," Donahue told Eater Las Vegas. "We believe we're a 'LYFEstyle restaurant or LSR' that caters to all of your eating occasions."

This is the 273-calorie Barramundi Noodle Bowl featuring sea bass with soba noodles, mushrooms, scallions, and edamame in kimchi broth.

LYFE Kitchen
LYFE Kitchen

LYFE Kitchen

Here's the 562-calorie Crispy Gardein Chick'n with shishito pepper relish, romaine lettuce, tomato, and chipotle aioli on an oatmeal bun.

LYFE Kitchen
LYFE Kitchen

Facebook/LYFE Kitchen

LYFE is also entering the frozen food aisle with microwavable meals like Chicken Chile Verde and Sweet Corn Chowder. Prices for individual meals range from $4.99 to $6.99.

Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst for the NPD Group, says health-focused fast casual chains like LYFE Kitchen will be the next biggest growth opportunity in the restaurant industry.

"They really appeal to consumers who want to eat healthier or have lighter fare," she said. "They are going to benefit from both the changing eating habits of the Boomers ... and also the younger generation, the millennials" who are increasingly seeking fresh, convenient, quality food at a reasonable price.

LYFE gets relatively high ratings on Yelp, and The New York Times food critic Mark Bittman wrote last year that he tried the menu and "came away impressed."

"Lyfe has the pedigree, menu, financing, plan and ambition to take on the major chains," Bittman wrote. "I tasted terrific salads, like a beet-and-farro one ($9) that could easily pass for a starter at a good restaurant, and breakfast selections, like steel-cut oatmeal with yogurt and real maple syrup ($5) and a tofu wrap ($6.50), were actually delicious."

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