The list of Memphis firms that reach a national audience is short. Say it with me: FedEx, AutoZone, St. Jude, International Paper, ServiceMaster, Ducks Unlimited. Then, last week, without much fanfare, a new name was added to the list. It's a name you'll be hearing a lot over the next few years: LYFE Kitchen.
LYFE's mission is at once simple and breathtakingly ambitious. They're cooking delicious, real food — things like corn chowder and fish tacos — and serving it at fast-casual prices. The majority of the company was acquired by Memphis-based Carlisle Corporation in June 2014. They opened their first Memphis location on August 6th.
Other locations (there are currently 17) include New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. But CEO Chance Carlisle says this concept is not just for big markets. Given time, he could envision a LYFE Kitchen in every city in America.
"For the average American," Carlisle says, "just getting from meal to meal is a struggle because of constraints on our time and our pocketbooks. LYFE wants to solve that problem by being just as convenient and affordable as fast food — and a lot better-tasting. The fact that it happens to be nutritious is just a bonus."
Take the Chocolate Budino. Of its five ingredients, four are superfoods: dark chocolate, coconut, pomegranate, chia seeds, and toasted almonds. As desserts go, it's over-the-top decadent: a rich, chocolaty custard enlivened by a berry topping. And get this: It costs $3 and has just 206 calories.
"You can't eat chocolate cake every day," says Carlisle, grinning. "But you can have one of these every day, no problem."
How can they sell it that cheap? Carlisle's answer is deceptively simple: "volume." In fact, he brings considerable expertise to bear on the project. With Wendelta, Carlisle and his family have been in the food business for 40 years; they currently manage 78 Wendy's franchises in six states across the Southeast.
Even before the Carlisles came along, supply-chain savvy was baked into the concept. LYFE was founded in 2011 by two former McDonald's executives, Mike Roberts and Mike Donahue, who decided to use their powers for good. To that end, they enlisted the service of top-notch culinary talents like Art Smith (Oprah's personal chef) and Jeremy Bringardner (winner of Food Network's Chopped).
You can taste that distinguished pedigree in dishes like the Quinoa Crunch Bowl ($7.50). Here, spicy arugula meets tangy edamame hummus amid a medley of fresh vegetables: things like cherry tomatoes, radishes, and broccolini. Served with fireman's hot sauce over a bed of quinoa tabbouleh, it's a dish I could enjoy multiple times per week.
Oh and hey, don't tell anybody. It's vegan.
Of course, most restaurants these days voice some kind of commitment to healthy food. But talk is cheap, so I asked the team at LYFE to back it up with facts.
Turns out, they've got the goods. Here's a partial list of things you won't find at LYFE: Butter. Cream. High fructose corn syrup. MSG. Trans fats. Anything GMO. Anything with hormones or antibiotics. Anything raised in a cage. Surprised? I was. Here, all the beef is grass-fed, nothing has more than 600 calories, and nothing costs more than $15.
"We bake, we sauté, we roast," Carlisle says. "We don't microwave, we don't fry. We don't have the equipment. It's not in the building."
That's what's so exciting about this concept. Affluent people have been eating this kind of food for years — or at least, they've had the option. But at $7, a frittata of fresh vegetables might actually find its way into the hands of a normal person, someone whose time and money considerations would otherwise condemn her to Arby's.
Because ultimately, that's how you move the needle on food: not with white tablecloths but with compostable take-out boxes. Carlisle knows it's too early to start celebrating. So far traffic has been good, but the next few years will provide the true test for LYFE. Still, he has high hopes for this fledgling, Memphis-based company.
"It's an American thing," Carlisle says. "Everybody's tried to eat healthy, and everybody's gotten burned. What LYFE has to do is give you food you recognize at a price you can afford. We have to get you in the door and show you how delicious it can be."