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The concept: Life Alive Organic Cafe
The details: A five-unit, Boston-based fast-casual concept with a menu focused on organic, plant-based foods and an events calendar reflecting the chain’s wellness themes.
The backstory: Panera Bread founder and former CEO Ron Shaich was a Life Alive customer. After Panera was acquired by JAB Holding Co. in 2017 for $7.5 billion, Shaich started Act III holdings, a $300 million investment fund, with his former Panera partner Keith Pascal to provide capital to emerging brands. One of those brands is Life Alive, which Act III acquired from its founder when it had three units.
Why it’s worth watching: Shaich and Pascal have undeniably impressive industry track records, transforming Panera into a leader not only in the “clean” foods space, but in the digital one as well. Since taking over Life Alive, Act III has opened two units, implemented a stand-alone leadership team and is gearing up for broader expansion. While other fast casuals pivot to off-premise, Life Alive is investing in its interiors, booking a slate of special events and developing a menu of functional beverages to boost visit frequency and length of stay.
Photograph courtesy of Life Alive
HERE ARE FIVE GROWTH-MINDED QUESTIONS WITH ACT III PARTNER KEITH PASCAL:
There are so many health-focused fast casuals right now. How is Life Alive different?
It’s not just about filling your stomach. We’re trying to create a wellness brand. Our mission is to go beyond nutrition, satisfying your whole self, your mind, your body, your spirit. … We’re trying to use the brand as a vehicle to empower people to make better choices with their nutrition.
How do you go about creating a wellness brand?
For us, the environment is very important. We want it to be a calming and inviting place. Once [customers] cross that threshold, we want that to be something they feel and notice from the moment they interact with our brand. We offer seminars and pop-ups on a regular basis, educational formats for our suppliers to talk about our ingredients. … We have pop-ups frequently with a mindfulness teacher. We have an aura photographer come in. It’s broader and more fun and more engaging.
Is there still room for growth in the health-focused and wellness segment?
We see this enormous opportunity in general in wellness. It’s such a big part in trends of how people are eating today. We see 4%-5% of the population would identify as vegetarian or vegan, but more like 40% would say they’re looking to eat more plant-based where they can. This is an enormous opportunity. Being very experienced in the industry, we think there’s a place to invest more into the experience and more into the engagement. We see a lot of people minimize that investment cost. We’re trying to do the opposite. We’re trying to put more money into the space. We’re investing in warmer materials, natural materials, softer seating, more comfortable environments to sit in, music, sound, the lighting, all of those things.
What changes have you made to the concept since acquiring it?
We found we wanted to be able to broaden the appeal throughout the day. We’ve expanded the menu in a couple of ways. We’ve developed a broader breakfast offering, with warm meals and fresh juices and smoothies and smoothie bowls. … Into the evenings, beverage plays an important component. We’ve added a line of wellness lattes, functional, noncoffee lattes. … We have a line of hot teas and cold shaken fresh teas. We have a partnership with Intelligentsia Coffee. The beverage component keeps people here throughout the day. … Overall, beverages [are] probably 20% to 25% of sales.
What are you doing to recruit and retain employees at Life Alive?
We’re trying to create this culture of acceptance. … Large brands wanted people to hide themselves, their tattoos and hair color. We’re embracing that. Fly your flag. We really want to see what you’re all about. Today’s customer base is a lot more accepting. One thing we emphasize is we want Life Alive to be a place where our staff and team members can be who they are.