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A Collaboration For Life: LYFE Kitchen

Mike Donahoue wants you to Love Your Food Everyday


By Marina Chetner

Mike Donahue is a great conversationalist. When you speak with him, he’ll want to know about you, although through your own probing, you’ll quickly realize that he’s got more interesting stories to tell.  Stories that reflect upon influencers in his life including the late Paul Newman, to the power of preventative medicine that reversed the dire effects of his mother’s heart disease. Organically, the conversation will turn to food, and this is when you’ll likely be swept up in a discussion about Donahue’s latest career collaboration. Sure, he knows a thing or two about branding having worked as Chief Communications and External Relations Officer at the Golden Arches behemoth for 20 years, but his passion for his new project is contagious and provides plenty of ‘food for thought’. By the end of the conversation, you’ll be thinking big – revolution-big. Therein lies its beauty: you’ll feel like this business concept has been your idea all along.

Donahue is currently in the business of food that follows the premise: Eat Good, Feel Good, Do Good. A few years after completing his tenure at McDonald’s in 2006, Donahue embarked on an adventure with former McDonald’s global president and COO Mike Roberts – a 30-year-veteran of the chain and also a friend – and investment banker Stephen Sidwell. They have brought to life what is now known as LYFE Kitchen, an acronym for Love Your Food Everyday. Donahue explained, “I think the three of us are… cause-driven people. It’s always been about the challenge.” The challenge he is referring to is what the trio identified as one of America’s biggest unmet needs: providing great tasting food that is affordable and good for you. “With that simple premise, a simple vision, we started the project together and said, ‘This is bigger than a brand… it’s a purpose driven career…’ ” Donahue analogized, “It’s like we’re running a campaign without an election date.”

Donahue and Roberts collectively share five decades of McDonald’s experience. With this background, they know a few things for sure: that the consumer is motivated by taste and choice, and that “it’s more important to have authentic trusted ambassadors give you input, criticism, and stretch your goals than it is to talk to yourself.” With this clear vision, their first order was to identify top tastemakers. Enter Art Smith, known for his Southern comfort cooking style, and the “Albert Einstein of plant-based food” Tal Ronnen –-chefs and restaurateurs, who also happen to share a mutual friend in Oprah. Donahue stated, “If you put those two together, you’ve got the taste, with a transformational lifestyle (100 pound weight loss) of his own, from Art Smith and you’ve got the plant-based protein and Cordon Bleu understanding of Tal Ronnen… So, we smashed those atoms together — if you will — the two of them…” Voila – it was the start of a yearlong ‘taste quest’ that involved experimenting with herbs, spices, sauces and the like to create individual flavor profiles for hundreds of products they would eventually go to market with. A

With taste buds being catered to, the founders cultivated connections with leading voices in the fields of sports, nutrition, health, and wellness who serve not only as collaborators but also as auditors of the brand. Upon hearing the LYFE overview, Board Certified Neurologist and now LYFE ambassador, David Perlmutter had said, “It seems like for my 56 years, this is what I have been waiting for.” Janet Evans, four-time Olympic gold medalist, Mark Hyman, founder and Medical Director of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, and Troy Polamalu, Super Bowl Champion, all form part of the mind-tank that makes up LYFE’s advisory panels.

After a period of ‘taste questing’, running research panels, and conducting nutrition testing, the team opened the first LYFE Kitchen opened in Palo Alto, California. All dishes subscribe to set standards: they are under 600 calories, have 1000 mg of sodium or less, and use responsibly-sourced ingredients from local farms . Herbs and spices play a key role in flavor – the hallmark living herb wall inside the  LYFE Kitchen is a nod to that. The casual dining menu is comprehensive — Donahue describes their menu offering as “transformational food” in that it satiates multiple palates and dietary types, from the carnivore to the gluten-free consumer, by offering traditional, as well as plant-based dishes without a sacrifice to taste or budget. With this in mind, an order of say, a classic burger made with grass-fed beef supplied by Hearst Ranch, along with a side of baked sweet potato fries, and a glass of biodynamic wine on tap from Beckmen vineyards in California totals just under $20.  

The outlook is positive; the consumer is responding. Donahue rates customer reactions as one of the most enjoyable parts of the job: “(There’s) the notion that everyone believes that this is what they’ve been looking for, in a way.” A second location opened in Culver City in March of this year, and future locations are scheduled to open in West Hollywood and Tarzana at the end of 2013 through the start of 2014. Donahue forecasts that 250 stores will open within the next five years (the business includes a franchise model).

So, what’s it like to be surrounded by so many great minds every day, growing and working towards the LYFE vision? “It’s surreal,” Donahue said, “They are all such authentic people. It’s amazing how the synchronicity draws us together.” Ultimately, he says, the foundation of the business is pretty simple; it comes down to what our moms have told us all along, “Eat more fruits and vegetables.”

Mike Donahue’s 5 Tips to Establishing a Business for LYFE

#1: Passion for the brand. The LYFE team stands by the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’

#2: Know what you don’t know: know your limitations and build your team.

#3: Innovate: don’t benchmark. Dream big, create, and innovate.

#4: Be consumer-centric: Know the difference between grassroots and astroturf. What are the real trends? What are people really saying? Do primary and secondary research and talk to your customers.

#5: Create the brand conversation: build relationships in the community and take the word out virally.

To view this article, which appeared in our April 2013 issue, go to http://findbliss.uberflip.com/i/119100

To view this article, which appeared in our April 2013 issue, go to http://findbliss.uberflip.com/i/119100


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