Can the Ex-COO of McDonald’s Bring Healthy Food to the Masses?

Mike Roberts, the former president and chief operating officer of McDonald’s, is now heading up Lyfe Kitchen, an organic, healthy restaurant that plans to expand to hundreds of locations throughout the U.S.

Big Mac buster? Lyfe Kitchen’s ancient grain bowl includes a plant-based protein called gardein, stir-fried and served over whole-grain farro and quinoa. Lyfe wants to bring its sustainable menu to hundreds of new restaurants in the U.S.

Image courtesy of Lyfe Kitchen.

The headline on the article in the August 2012 issue of Wired tells much of the story: "Former McDonald’s Honchos Take On Sustainable Cuisine."

The article is about Lyfe Kitchen, a single-venue restaurant in Palo Alto, California, with big plans.

The company aims to open hundreds of restaurants across in the U.S. in five years, with a menu that includes beef from grass-fed, humanely raised cows, vegan cookies, organic beer, veggie items like a quinoa crunch wrap (featuring edamame hummus and adzuki beans), and other foods made with “no butter, no cream, no white sugar, no white flour, no high-fructose corn syrup, no GMOs, no trans fats, no additives,” says Wired.

“Imagine tens of millions of local, sustainable gourmet meals, served with the efficiency and economy that one expects from a national fast-food chain,” writes Frederick Kaufman. Lyfe Kitchen hopes “to transform the way the world produces organic ingredients, doing for responsibly grown meat and veggies what McDonald’s did for factory-farmed beef.”

What makes the project especially interesting is the team that’s executing it. The company’s cofounder and CEO is Mike Roberts — the former president and chief operating officer of McDonald’s. Mike Donahue, the former chief communications officer at McDonald’s, has moved to the same job at Lyfe. Name chefs Art Smith and Tal Ronnen are crafting the food.

The Wired story says that Roberts has long wanted to bring different options to consumers who eat fast food: “During his years as a top executive [at McDonald's], Roberts often tried to push the chain toward healthier fare, such as mango strips, slinky-shaped carrots, and yogurt. At one point he even explored the possibility of a vegan McNugget.”

More importantly, the Wired story also details the degree to which Roberts understands the challenge of sourcing in volume. For instance, while Roberts was at McDonald’s, the company introduced a product called Apple Dipper, which is sliced apples with a caramel dip. “Not long after Apple Dippers appeared on the menu, McDonald’s became the nation’s largest seller of apples,” says Wired. The company also buys enormous amounts of potatoes and beef.

The question is whether Lyfe (an acronym for “love your food everyday”) will be able to ramp up sourcing the same way, but on items such as hormone-free, free-range chicken, organic sweet potatoes, and brussels sprouts, which Roberts thinks that, prepared with the right crisp, people will embrace in lieu of french fries.

The stakes are big. Concludes author Kaufman: “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.”

2 Comments On: Can the Ex-COO of McDonald’s Bring Healthy Food to the Masses?

  • jaywallet81 | August 12, 2012

    I believe this is just another instance of a businessman following the money. While what people once wanted was affordability and brisk service, they clearly now are looking for in healthier options. Great post, very informative.

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