It’s fast-food week here at the Ops Room. Today’s story comes from Wired looking at Lyfe Kitchen, a Palo Alto restaurant founded by ex-McDonald’s execs that they hope to expand nationwide (Former McDonald’s Honchos Take On Sustainable Cuisine, August). The twist is that rather than serving beef from industrial farms and deep-fried everything, they are aiming for higher end, sustainable fare.
Lyfe’s aim is not just to build a radically sustainable, healthy brand of fast food. The former Golden Archers hope to transform the way the world produces organic ingredients, doing for responsibly grown meat and veggies what McDonald’s did for factory-farmed beef. These days, the utopian vision of responsible agriculture is premised on a return to small and slow. If Roberts is right, though, we’ll have to swallow a paradox as preposterous as a vegan Whopper: The nirvana of eco-gastronomy may at long last be attained, but only thanks to the efficiencies of supply-chain management.
The following video gives an idea of what they are about.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
So what does it take to pull this off?
It seems to require a mix of in-store and supply chain innovations. Some of the in-store stuff is hinted at in the video with the optimized kitchen. But there are also tweaks in order taking and delivering food to the table.
Unlike the sit-down bistros where gourmet food is generally prepared and served, Lyfe sees each brussels sprout as merely a cog in a vast clockwork, a system that is set into motion as a customer approaches the counter, gives their name, and places an order. Once that order is sent electronically to the kitchen, a cashier hands the customer a coaster. RFID strips beneath every table pick up the signal from the coaster and send it back to the kitchen. That’s how the runner—someone other than the person who took your order—knows where you are sitting, what you have ordered, and your name.
Now that the order has gone into the kitchen, the software-based cooking system kicks in. It’s smart enough to separate the elements of your order and send each of them to the monitor that hangs above the relevant food-prep station. The flatbread maker sees flatbread orders; the pantry chef, who makes all the salads and desserts, sees the salad order; the rôtisseur at the broiler station—you get the picture. So everything everyone needs to cook shows up in a queue, and the chefs each hit a plastic button beneath the screen to signal that they have begun. When they’re done, they press a button that “bumps” the food order to the “quarterback,” who gathers the finished product and puts it on a plate with all the other stuff you want to eat.
Take that free-range chicken dish. Just as in a high-end kitchen in Chicago or San Francisco, the rôisseur here cooks the chicken breast at a different spot from the one the legumier uses to sauté the brussels sprouts, squash, and cranberries. Of course, the two elements—the chicken and the vegetables—have different cooking times. Lyfe’s software is ready for such complication, though, and sequences the timing. In the case of salmon and potatoes, say, the fish takes five minutes while the tubers take two. So the rôisseur receives the salmon order three minutes before the potatoes order appears on the legumier’s screen. Same for the chicken and brussels sprouts. It’s all finished at the same time and plated together by the quarterback. Then the runner picks it up, heads to your table, and says, “Hi, Fred.”
One suspects that parts of these system would also be useful for typical sit-down restaurants (particularly the kitchen scheduling software), but it will really matter if Lyfe is going to compete in the quick service business. It is hard to imagine that this model will ever have labor costs that those of McDonald’s or Taco Bell, but they get in the range of fast casual places like Olive Garden and perhaps even best them.
The harder problem is on the supply-chain side. Lyfe apparently has big plans for brussels sprouts and has worked out a detailed plan to get a high volume of brussels sprouts (10,000 pounds a year) to their current location.
The story of Lyfe’s local brussels sprouts begins at one of the two farms that Synergy’s Campbell has enlisted in San Mateo and Monterey counties. After spending the first 50 to 60 days of their lives in nurseries, the sprouts head to the fields. The tightly wrapped leaf balls grow from axils that form a helical pattern around the stalks and can be harvested for the first time after roughly 110 days. Later the plants can be harvested again, up to five times over a period of seven weeks, delivering as many as 100 sprouts from every stalk.
After they’re cut from the stalks, the sprouts are washed, cooled, sanitized, packed, and stored in a cold room. At this point, the clock begins to tick: Their shelf life is just 20 days. And so the brussels sprouts are carried by refrigerated trucks to Lyfe’s Bay Area distributors, where they are usually turned around within 24 hours. Stored at 34 degrees Fahrenheit, they await their second truck ride, which will deliver them to Lyfe. There they are immediately stowed in the walk-in cooler at the back of the restaurant.
The question is how this scales.
The one nagging question is scale. Lyfe has figured out how to get 10,000 pounds of brussels sprouts to tables in Palo Alto with minimal spoilage, but what about getting 100,000 pounds to nine more cities? A million pounds to 100 cities? Roberts hopes to see his chain expand to 500, even 1,000 restaurants within several years. Can America’s farmers possibly grow, process, and deliver enough fresh, local, organic, hormone-free, non-antibiotic-addled, health-saving, world-redeeming ingredients?
It’s clear that as of now, the answer is most definitely no. The morning after my lunch in Palo Alto, a Lyfe delegation treks to San Juan Bautista, California, to visit Earthbound Farm, the nation’s largest grower of organic produce. Earthbound supplies Costco, Safeway, and Walmart with prewashed and packaged tenderleaf (more commonly known as salad greens) and now controls 49 percent of the organic lettuces market—which means it keeps a lot of people in arugula, frisée, and romaine.
When Lyfe’s consultant, Campbell, mentions the target scale, Earthbound’s senior manager for national food service, Jon Kiley, screws up his face in a frown. Lyfe’s menu features a fair share of beets, cabbage, chayote, and potatoes, not to mention boatloads of those brussels sprouts. As Kiley points out, organic root vegetables are a lot tougher to supply than organic frisée, kale, and arugula. Since they take a long time to grow, they’re more susceptible to insects and consequently more difficult to deliver as organic (no chemical pesticides allowed)—which may create a problem when it comes to Lyfe’s future demand for organic potatoes and sweet potato fries. Also, expanding production is hard under the current rules for organic produce: It takes three years just to certify a field as organic, and five to seven years before the soil becomes truly productive. “It may be viable,” Kiley says, “if you have 50 stores.” But 20 times that? The question hangs in the air unanswered.
There is a real problem of what’s the chicken and what’s the egg here. Lyfe will be hard-pressed to expand to multiple markets without a really reliable source of supply but that source is hard to develop without consistent, reliable demand. McDonald’s can get farmers and distributors to quickly bend to their needs if they can convince their supply partners that McDonald’s is committed to a particular course of action. Lyfe might be committed to brussels sprouts but I suspect that farmers are reluctant to commit to Lyfe until they are bigger.