Make Way For Healthy Fast Casuals

Fast casual restaurants get a healthy makeover.

Four years ago, former McDonald’s executives Mike Donahue and Mike Roberts ventured into the fast casual segment with a new approach: casual, comfortable spaces that combine healthy food offerings with a feel-good corporate philosophy. With six locations running and a dozen more slated to open by year’s end, California-based Lyfe Kitchen appears to have tapped an unmet need.

“The concept resonates so deeply because everyone believes it is their idea,” Donahue says. “They say, ‘I always wanted a place like that. And now here it is.’”

If competitors are any indication of success and continued growth, Lyfe Kitchen now has company and the numbers to prove it. The healthy fast casual segment has grown to include Native Foods Café, Protein Bar, Freshii and Chop’t Creative Salad Company. Receipts from some of the nation’s emerging healthy fast casual chains rose to $640 million in 2013, up 18 percent from $542 million in 2012, according to foodservice research firm Technomic.


“Healthy fast-casuals show broad appeal and are in a position to expand,” says Deanna Jordan, senior research analyst at Technomic. “Young, female, urban and upscale consumers are the biggest market for health-focused concepts, so locations that target these segments will continue to see growth.”

A salad isn’t just a salad at the new breed of healthy fast casual. It’s about branding. Whether it’s Native Foods Café’s vegan focus or Protein Bar’s emphasis on protein-packed quinoa and tofu, most are committed to a holistic mix of healthy food, energetic decor and emotive marketing.

“The focus is on feel-good food and stories,” says Christin Groh, MenuTrends manager for Datassential, a foodservice industry research organization. “Offerings tend to be healthy and customizable yet familiar enough to appeal to a wide audience. There’s an emphasis on quality and value.”

The aim at Lyfe Kitchen was to make great-tasting food that’s also healthy and nutritious. But the team was equally focused on connecting with diners on an emotional and socially responsible level. Art Smith, Oprah’s former personal chef, came on board to substitute a global palette of spices for unwanted sodium and excess fats in everything from grass-fed hamburgers to ancient grain vegetarian bowls. Richly illustrated menus highlight calorie and sodium levels, local and organic producers, and hormone- and antibiotic-free meat. Naturalistic decor—flush with green grasses, natural woods and inspiring quotes about health, dedication and change—tell a story and project a wholesome ethos.

“People want to be connected with something that is authentic,” says Erik Oberholtzer, CEO and co-founder of Tender Greens.That fusion of food and storytelling coalesces around the idea of “slow food done fast” at Tender Greens, a California-based chain with more than a dozen locations. “Local” is the key word, sourcing premium ingredients from nearby farmers, ranchers and food artisans for offerings such as chipotle chicken, nicoise salad and tomato soup. Community is prized here—walls showcase the talent of local artists, and young adults aging out of foster care participate in a culinary internship program as servers, proving that food can heal our bodies and our communities

Outside the Salad Bowl

Growing interest in trendy health-based diets, from veganism to the Paleo diet, have provided opportunities for independents to carve out their own niche within the healthy fast casual space. In Portland, Oregon, restaurateur Richard Satnick opened a pair of Dick’s Kitchen outposts, which have the look of a classic diner but push Paleo fare like grass-fed burger bowls, vegetable platters and bun-free elk patties. Zoë Cassimus, founder of Zoës Kitchen, leveraged the anti-inflammatory benefits of Mediterranean cuisine to expand from the restaurant’s base in Alabama to more than 100 locations across the nation.  

"Consumers are willing to pay a higher price point for premium ingredients and customized meal options."

-Christin Groh, MenuTrends manager for Datassential

The success of these health-focused concepts has caused ripple effects across the industry. Corner Bakery now offers a list of 100 menu item combos under 600 calories. Chipotle has introduced vegetarian-friendly tofu at some of its stores, and Noodles & Company has added a gluten-free fusilli to its menu.  

“Diners are becoming more and more educated about what they eat,” says Rachel Phillips-Luther, vice president of marketing for Zoës Kitchen. “They’re looking for specific ingredients and cooking styles, which has allowed us to emphasize the wholesomeness of eating a Mediterranean diet.”

“Diners are embracing premium ingredients and customized meals because they perceive there’s value to be found there,” says Groh. “Consumers are willing to pay a higher price point for premium ingredients and customized meal options.” 

Peter Gianopulos is a freelance writer, restaurant critic and adjunct professor who is a regular contributor to Food Fanatics.

Speedy Salads 

To court customers on the go, few spots are as unique as drive-through chain Salad and Go in Gilbert, Arizona. The quick service concept features healthy salads, wraps, smoothies and a kids’ menu at prices competitive with other drive-throughs ($3.99 to $5.55). 

To keep costs down, owner Roushan Christofellis eliminated internal seating with a focus on drive-through and walk-up orders. Glass windows maintain the feeling of an open kitchen so guests waiting in their cars can see their 48-ounce salads being loaded up with locally sourced vegetables and meats.

A Dose of Healthy Advice 

Lessons learned from the healthy food renaissance:

Keep It Open: Growing chain restaurant Teriyaki Madness differentiates itself from other lower-priced fast casual competitors by using open kitchen layouts to showcase the freshness of ingredients and the use of grills and steamers instead of fryers and heat lamps.

Go Digital: Digital menu boards at healthy fast casual outposts like Panera, Cosi and Market Thyme display detailed nutrition facts and highlight seasonal menu specials. Imagery also mimics smartphones and tablets, which appeal to young diners.

Technology Matters: By investing in new higher-end cooking devices, like energy-saving grills and ovens that use a combination of steam and convection heating, Lyfe Kitchen reduced cooking times while replicating the flavors and textures found in professional restaurant kitchens.

Tell It All: Creatively outline the health benefits of ingredients, whether it’s an abundance of vitamins or an absence of fat or sodium. All of the ingredients used by Freshii, for example, have been formatted into a periodic table that blends striking visuals with valuable health information.

Drink It Up: Native Foods Café offers high-end beverages like lavender lemonade and watermelon agua fresca to reinforce the operation’s brand identity and commitment to good health. Bonus: Specialty beverages can yield high-end profits.

By The Numbers

7 out of 10 consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers healthy options, while 84 percent of restaurant operators say their customers are paying more attention to nutrition when they order — National Restaurant Association

22% of consumers who visit fast casual restaurants say that healthy options are an expectation and will go elsewhere if these are not offered. —Technomic

84% of consumers believe it is increasingly important for chains to offer fresh, local, organic and/or natural ingredients. —Datassential

58% of diners care less about price and deals and more about the quality and freshness of their meal. —NPD Group