LYFE Kitchen officially brought its brand of fast-casual, scratch-made, low-calorie cuisine to Chicago a year ago this month. While much was made about whether Chicagoans would embrace the concept, the first location in River North was busy once the polar vortex ended last spring, where local residents and businesspeople lined up for chef Art Smith's under-600 calorie dishes. The Evanston location opened six months later and Chicago's third LYFE Kitchen is under construction in Streeterville.
Local franchisees Gail Taggart and Nate Cooper, both Chicago natives, chatted about the first year of the River North location, how Chicago eaters reacted to the concept, and how many more LYFE Kitchens are coming and when.
Is it hard to believe it's been a year?
Nate Cooper: It's gone by so quickly. If I had picked a day that we wouldn't have wanted to open last year it would probably have been the day we opened, a week before Thanksgiving in the worst winter in 30 years. It really allowed us to get our feet under us and the summer was unbelievable.
Gail Taggart: We were pretty humbled by the positive experience we got early on and we were impressed with the number of people that came out last winter. People really seemed to like the food and we very quickly had a very regular clientele. We did some surveys and found out that people are eating here as much as 4-6 times a month.
Are your customers mostly coming from the neighborhood?
GT: At lunch it's 90 percent people walking from nearby businesses and at dinner we have, of course, some of the local residents, but we also get a fair number of people that are working at nearby offices and they're getting to-go.
What went into picking the first location?
NC: A lot of it was gut feeling. We're all native Chicagoans and I've lived in River North for a few years now. Hubbard Street has really transformed; the space was a parking lot two years ago and now it's the hottest block in the city. We were excited and ecstatic to be a part of it.
GT: We approached them and we fit the demographic that they were planning on. Because we offer breakfast, lunch and dinner at an affordable price point we really benefit the community in a way that a lot of the other restaurants around here don't. We don't have valet and we're counting on the local community to be the loyal clientele.
Are you surprised that Chicagoans have embraced the healthy concept?
GT: I'm really not. Chicago is a world-class city with sophisticated people and the restaurant scene is broad and varied. I thought Chicago was ready for what we're offering and they've definitely shown us that with the business that we've seen.
NC: I've always thought that people want to eat this way, they just don't have the options, don't know how, or don't know it's available to them. Other companies have shown that if you make great-tasting food that's also great for you available for people they're going to flock towards it. That's what we saw all spring and summer with lines out our door.
Just how busy has it been?
GT: We are right on track with what we had hoped to do but if you factor in that it was a miserable winter, we were very slow in January, February and March, and everyone was so we weren't taking it personally, but we made up a lot this summer. Every day for lunch we have a fast-moving line but we definitely have a line.
Have you made any changes in the first year?
GT: It's a newer concept and it's evolving but I wouldn't say we had to make any adjustments for the market. We move a lot of soup. We added cocktails that we didn't have when we opened: local herbs mixed with high quality local distilleries.
NC: We also did some tweaks to the furniture and interior of the restaurant.
Has the company as a whole learned anything from your experience in Chicago?
NC: What we've done here really well is build the culture within the restaurants for people that work with us to be more than just a job, more than just to pay the bills. If you look at the type of restaurant that we are, fast-casual, and you look at the turnover rate it's significantly less than any of our peers. 95 percent of the people I talk to about our restaurants have more positive things to say about our people than they do about our food.
What do you attribute the low turnover rate to?
GT: It's how we treat them—individual employees just want to be treated well. They want their schedules to be right, they want a fair wage, we're paying well-above minimum wage here, we have a nice group of people and that catches on. We're not a full-service restaurant so we don't have waiters and waitresses and bartenders that are making huge money and we went into this knowing that to keep staff we'd have to make it a nice place to work. One of our goals is to make it the nicest place to work at in Chicago and in America. We're a small company still, 100 people between two restaurants.
How many restaurants do you want to open here?
GT: Ideally we'd like to get up to 9 or 10 restaurants in the Chicagoland area. We have two where we don't have the leases signed yet but we're pretty close. We'll probably open three restaurants next year (including the under-construction Streeterville location).
Any specific neighborhoods you're looking at?
GT: We'd like to look north and see how we do in Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Gold Coast, Roscoe Village, and I also think that hopefully there's a space that will work out for us in the Loop, or a couple.
And how has Evanston gone?
NC: Students love us, whether it's for a cocktail hour for graduate students or a quick lunch or a study break. What we've become in River North is really a routine, we see a lot of the same people multiple times a week, and that's what we're on track to becoming in Evanston as well with the students.