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Emerging Brands

True Food Kitchen readies for off-premise as it grows

The full-service, health-focused chain—founded by restaurateur Sam Fox and wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil more than a decade ago—is also launching a standalone cocktail/juice bar in Las Vegas.
Photograph courtesy of True Food Kitchen

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The concept:True Food Kitchen

The details: The full-service, health-focused chain has 28 units in 12 states, with several more openings in the works. Units range from 4,500 square feet to more than 8,000 square feet, with a menu that changes four times a year. Next spring, the brand is slated to open True Bar, its first stand-alone cocktail/juice bar. It’ll be located next to a new True Food Kitchen at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.  

The backstory: Wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil teamed up with restaurateur Sam Fox to launch True Food Kitchen in 2008. The chain’s menu follows Weil’s principles of anti-inflammatory nutrition. The company hired Christine Barone, a former Starbucks executive, as CEO in 2016 to transition the then 13-unit concept out of the Fox Restaurant Concepts portfolio and into its own brand. In March, the brand hired its first chief marketing officer. A few months later, it named former Shake Shack executive Peggy Rubenzer as chief people officer.

Why it’s worth watching: Oprah Winfrey invested in the casual-dining concept last year and became a member of its board. The chain is also backed by private equity firm Centerbridge Partners. Unlike some health-focused concepts that cater to a specific diet, True Food Kitchen’s menu is geared to omnivores. “We will meet you where you are,” Barone said.

inside out quinoa burger

Photograph courtesy of True Food Kitchen

HERE ARE FIVE GROWTH-MINDED QUESTIONS WITH BARONE:

  1. What role does Oprah play in guiding the brand?

Mrs. Winfrey is on our board. She provides awesome insights as she has built an incredible brand and lives a wonderfully authentic life. She’s an amazing mentor and is helping the brand. We’ve done some great collaborations with her. She has an organic farm in Hawaii and we brought produce from her farm and made a menu with it and shared it with our guests.

  1. What have you brought to True Food Kitchen that you learned during your time at Starbucks?

I felt very privileged to work alongside Howard Schultz, and I still view him as my mentor. When you’re building a brand that’s going to last for a really long time, you have to be really thoughtful of what the tenets of that brand are and never compromise on those things. Starbucks was the first concept of scale to go into online ordering and build loyalty with their guests. We just launched a loyalty program. We launched online ordering in February. … We’re still learning and getting better. 

  1. What are you doing to prepare the full-service operation for off-premise orders?

Our guests want this and want to be able to have True Food in more ways. One of the things we’ve done is put in more wayfinding in-restaurant. We are definitely listening. We’ve put in stands where you can walk in and grab your food. … The big thing we’re doing now is making sure all the stores are built out in the right way for online ordering. There will be a takeout door. There will be parking spaces for guests to run in quickly. What are the takeout needs of that community? Each restaurant is not cookie cutter. More than 10% of orders are now consumed off-premise. We’re very pleased with how our launch has gone so far.

  1. What’s the return on this off-premise investment? Do you think you’re seeing incremental sales?

It’s tricky. Someone who decides they’re going to have dinner on the couch is someone who’s going to have dinner on the couch. They’re not going to come into the restaurant. Eventually, it’s going to replace some visits to the restaurant, but not that night’s visit to the restaurant. We’re in a time of massive behavior change for our guests.

  1. True Food Kitchen is slated to open its first stand-alone cocktail bar next spring in Las Vegas. How does that fit into the chain’s health-focused mission?

We are really thoughtful, just like with our food. We’re thoughtful about the sourcing of beverages—the majority are organic or biodynamic. Dr. Weil believes in a life well-lived. He encourages people to eat across the spectrum. Having a cocktail not with a syrup made of high-fructose corn syrup, but having it with fresh-squeezed juice, fits with that.

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