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Lyfe Kitchen Is the Kind of Restaurant You Start After a Career at McDonald’s

Two former McDonald’s execs joined up with the chefs Art Smith and Tal Ronnen for a healthy, low-calorie River North restaurant.

The quinoa crunch wrap at Lyfe Kitchen   Photo: Courtesy Lyfe Kitchen

The founders of the fast-casual chain Lyfe Kitchen (413 N. Clark St., no phone yet), coming to lyfe on November 15 in River North, worked together at McDonald’s—a corporation that does not exactly share Lyfe’s healthful, organic, no-trans-fats, no-preservatives philosophy.

“We are trying to run away from that, and yet we don’t want to run away from it,” says Mike Donahue, a Lyfe partner. Even though the food couldn’t be more different, principles about branding and franchising clearly grew from the Golden Arches experience. “We learned that the biggest unmet need in America is healthy food that happens to taste good,” he says.

The name of Lyfe Kitchen is an acronym standing for “love your food everyday”—a slogan the copy editors didn’t get hold of, but “love your food every day” becomes Lyfed, which doesn’t work anyway. Every item on the menu measures less than 600 calories. In addition to free-range chicken, fish options such as salmon and barramundi, and Tallgrass Beef, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diets are covered.

“Our first meeting was in Art Smith’s kitchen,” Donahue says. Smith, the celebrity chef of Table Fifty-Two, is an investor in Lyfe Kitchen, and he collaborated with Tal Ronnen, the author of The Conscious Cook, to conceive the menu. “We have this great Southern gourmet chef known for comfort food—fried chicken, turkey meat loaf, mac and cheese. Tal knew about ancient grains and quinoa and farro. We got them involved and we smashed food atoms,” Donahue says.

With two California locations open and one more on the cusp, the Chicago restaurant makes four. They’re also eyeing spaces in Evanston and by Northwestern Memorial Hospital. On the horizon, the Lyfe team set a goal of 250 stores across the United States by 2017—sounds like the partners also learned something from McDonald’s about how to grow a chain.

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