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FORMER MCDONALD'S CHIEFS OUT TO CHANGE
THE MEANING OF LYFE

by Simon Lord,
last updated 27/07/2012

A new quick-service restaurant wants to do for organic ingredients what McDonald's did for factory farming - and it has the leadership, experience and funding to make a difference

Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley is renowned as a hub of innovation. It was there that Xerox invented the concept of the computer desktop, windows and the mouse, and companies such as Hewlett Packard, Facebook and innovative electric carmakers Tesla are based in the city. Now, Palo Alto could be at the heart of another revolution – one that aims to change the food business forever.

Lyfe Kitchen (the name is an acronym for Love Your Food Everyday) is a quick-service restaurant that serves fine, organic, sustainably-farmed food with no butter, no cream, no white sugar, no additives, no trans-fats – the list of omissions goes on. But it still tastes good and has attracted quite a following. It’s the sort of place that wouldn’t usually rank a mention in the press, especially thousands of miles away in New Zealand, except that Lyfe plans to open hundreds of restaurants around the US in the next five years and to transform the way that the world produces organic ingredients. Oh, and the people behind it are no hemp-wearing hippies: the co-founder and chief executive of Lyfe is Mike Roberts, former president and chief operating officer of McDonald’s Corporation, and he has been joined by several former McDonald’s colleagues.

The food revolution

According to Wired magazine, which reports on how new and developing technology will affect culture, the economy and politics, ‘Lyfe’s aim is not just to build a radically sustainable, healthy brand of fast food. The former Golden Archers hope to transform the way the world produces organic ingredients, doing for responsibly-grown meat and veggies what McDonald’s did for factory-farmed beef. These days, the utopian vision of responsible agriculture is premised on a return to small and slow. If Roberts is right, though, we’ll have to swallow a paradox as preposterous as a vegan Whopper: the nirvana of eco-gastronomy may at long last be attained, but only thanks to the efficiencies of supply-chain management.’

Mike Roberts told Wired, ‘We’re in the middle of the first stage of the food revolution. I’m dreaming of a place where science, medicine, producers, farmers and restaurateurs meet to say we are on a journey together.’ Roberts is well aware of the power of a successful brand to create change far beyond its own restaurant walls. When McDonald’s launched its Apple Dippers product on his watch, the company rapidly became the largest seller of apples in tPhoto courtesy Lyfe Kitchens media servicehe US.

‘What Roberts did for the apple at McDonald’s he now intends to do for the brussels sprout at Lyfe,’ Wired reports. ‘He sees brussels sprouts as a viable alternative to french fries, and he has built an ingenious process to realize that vision. ‘I believe it to my core,’ Roberts says. ‘People say, “I have not had a brussels sprout in 10 years, but I will have these four times a week.”’ Lyfe Kitchen’s one restaurant is on track to serve more than 10,000 pounds of the little cabbages in its first year—by means of the brutal efficiencies McDonald’s once put into the lowly potato.’

Roberts is taking all the tricks he learned from old-style fast food and applying them to the next phase of American – and ultimately global ­– eating. From the selection of organic and sustainable suppliers to the McDonald’s-style efficiencies of kitchen layout and customer services, the strategies are based on the strict market disciplines that made fast food possible in the first place. At the same time, the company aims to ‘do no harm’ ­– post-petroleum era packaging is developed from fermented dextrose and is bio-compostable, impingement ovens reduce energy usage and dishwashers cut water usage by half and eliminate chlorine – a boon for local sewage systems. The result is a quick-service restaurant that is attracting rave reviews and has the vision, experience and funding to grow.

Opportunities and change

The biggest snag in Lyfe’s vision is that America’s farmers cannot deliver sufficient fresh organic ingredients to meet the company’s ambitious expansion plans ­– a fact that may offer export opportunities for organic producers in New Zealand, as elsewhere. The salmon served at Lyfe, for example, is sustainably farmed in Scotland. But ultimately, Mike Roberts believes, responsible food consumption has the ability to shift the marketplace.

As Wired’s Fred Kauffman writes, ‘After all, even as McDonald’s metastasized across America during the 1960s, US farmers weren’t prepared to supply it and its competitors at the staggering scale that they reached during the 1970s. The rise of fast food transformed the entire world agricultural system, in many ways for the worse. If a sustainable-food chain could achieve even a fraction of McDonald’s growth today, then the whole system might shift again, this time for the better. Such, at least, is Roberts’ vision.’

Read much more in the Wired article here, and watch the video below.

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