LYFE Kitchen -- where everything is under 600 calories -- opening in Park Meadows

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When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I avoided eating meat. The reasons why aren't important, but looking back on that phase, I wish I'd chosen a different time in my life to go meat-free, because I was living in Chicago, where militant vegetarians were few and far between. This isn't to say that I ate particularly healthy. In fact, on my way to work each morning, my must-have habit was an egg McMuffin -- just egg and cheese -- from McDonald's. And sometimes, a hash brown. My metabolism was much better then; I was skinny -- super-skinny -- but I was still eating junk.

During those years, there was no True Food Kitchen or Native Foods Cafe, no Chipotle or Maoz Vegetarian, and certainly nothing like LYFE Kitchen (the acronym stands for "Love Your Food Everyday"), a restaurant that opened its first store late last year in, coincidentally, Chicago. And in mid-June, as part of an ambitious growth spurt that will spawn 250 locations nationwide over the next five years, LYFE Kitchen will open in Park Meadows Mall, in the space vacated by California Cafe.

The owners-operators of that location? Rachel and DJ Mitchell, a married couple who grew up together in Chicago and worked for McDonalds and McDonald's Corporation.

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"My mom was a restaurant manager, my grandma was the french fry lady, and I started working at McDonald's when I was fifteen," says Rachel, whose parents eventually went on to become McDonald's franchisees, as did Rachel and her husband, who had three stores in Las Vegas, another trio in Colorado Springs and one store in Alamosa, Colorado, a good ninety miles away from the next nearest McDonald's, which means that it's one helluva busy McDonald's.

Over time, the Mitchells sold off most of the stores they owned, and by October of last year, they had sold them all to pursue a very, very different restaurant landscape -- one that couldn't be more different from the world of chicken McNuggets and egg McMuffins.

It was in January of last year, remembers DJ, that he first heard about LYFE Kitchen. "I was driving to work and listening to Bloomburg Radio, and they were doing a really interesting interview with Mike Roberts, the president and CEO of LYFE Kitchen, and as soon as I got to my office, I started researching the company on my computer, and what I came across was just fascinating," he says. And when he started poking around the LYFE Kitchen website, his interest, part of which hit very close to home, soared.

"Peter, our son, has dairy and egg allergies, which we have to be very careful about, and it was a combination of that and wanting to address our own concerns about eating healthier that made us really start thinking about ways that we could change our lives for the better," says DJ.

On a whim, DJ submitted a franchise application to the corporate brass of LYFE Kitchen, thinking, he says, that he might get one of those generic e-mails thanking him for his submission and promising to get in touch if there was interest. Instead, he got a phone call the next day from the franchising manager, who said that Roberts, who happens to be the former global president and COO for McDonald's Corporation, was more than interested; he wanted DJ and Rachel to come to Palo Alto, California, to see one of the stores firsthand. "I was just looking for a pamphlet," quips DJ, "and instead, we were invited to come to California and take part in what they call 'Discovery Day,' where they present the components of the LYFE Kitchen brand."

That took place in February of last year, and while Rachel, who, by her own admission, is a "picky eater," wasn't terribly enamored with the idea of swallowing green vegetables swirled in a blender, she took a sip, and to her surprise, she liked it. A lot. "They put a kale-and-banana smoothie in front of me, and I was thinking that I really didn't want to drink a kale smoothie, but I tried it, and I absolutely loved it," she acknowledges. She sampled several other dishes, too, including ones with Gardein, a plant-based protein made from wheat, soy and pea proteins, vegetables and ancient grains, and, again, she had to eat her words. "It was amazingly good," she says, adding that over the course of the time she and DJ spent at LYFE Kitchen, she tasted "all sorts of foods that I never would have chosen, but that were so good and so delicious."

Roberts, it turned out, had invited the right couple to Palo Alto, although he'd have to lure them back one more time to convince them that owning a LYFE Kitchen would be the next chapter in their lives. "We left thinking that we had a big decision to make, and then Mike invited us back to California again to actually work in the Culver City restaurant, which was just opening," recalls DJ. That experience, say the Mitchells, solidified their enthusiasm. "We not only had a blast, but we were just so impressed by how fresh the ingredients were, how systematized everything was, how happy and knowledgeable the employees were and all the positive energy," recalls Rachel.

Given what they witnessed -- and ate -- the Mitchells quickly realized that owning a LYFE Kitchen, where sourcing local and organic ingredients is paramount; nothing on the menu is more than 600 calories; and 100 percent grass-fed-and-finished beef and sustainably caught fish is the norm, rather than the exception, would become the next phase of their lives. "It's just such a great concept that's good for your body, with the freshest ingredients cooked from scratch on premise in a casual and non-intimidating environment that's accessible to everyone," says Rachel.

The LYFE Kitchen concept, echoes Mike Donahue, brand relations officer and co-founder of the company, is all about "changing the way Americans eat." And Donahue, who also spent twenty years with McDonald's Corporation, enlisted the advice of two celebrity chefs -- Art Smith and Tal Ronnen -- to assist with menu development.

"In 2010, when Mike [Roberts] and I decided to go through with this effort, we first thought of Art Smith, who had lost a lot of weight and also cooked for Oprah, and then we enlisted renowned vegan chef Tal Ronnen, and we knew that they would help to make sure that the food we were doing was healthy and tasted great," explains Donahue.

They, along with chef Jeremy Bringardner, who cooked at the now-closed Charlie Trotter's, then embarked on what Donahue deems a "taste quest that lasted a year and a half." The recipes, he adds, began in Smith's home kitchen in Chicago. "He has this beautiful kitchen, and when we all got together in the kitchen for the first time, there were 75 herbs, spices and sauces that were all in these little bowls, and from there, we started devising recipes -- more than 500 of them -- and from those, we came up with a core menu of around fifty dishes, including desserts and bread," says Donahue, who describes LYFE Kitchen as the "United Nation of foods in a one-stop shop."

And while Smith, Bringardner and Ronnen all brought their cooking expertise to the table, the twenty years that Donahue spent as a senior officer at McDonald's came into play, too. "I started our first social responsibility department at McDonald's, and it was a great opportunity to learn about labor issues, obesity issues and the environmental movement," he says, stressing that his position at McDonald's was "purpose-driven," as is the mission of LYFE Kitchen. "We wanted to meet the most significant need of today's consumers, and that's great-tasting food that's good for you, convenient and affordable -- and we won't compromise. That's not what we do," he says.

The state's first LYFE kitchen -- and the company's second franchise -- will occupy 4,200 square feet of real estate, plus a patio that seats fifty. In addition to a 100-seat dining room that will be separated into different thematic areas, the restaurant will feature a mural showcasing the Colorado landscape of local photographer John Fielder; a community table; reclaimed woods; a facade constructed from beetle kill pine; and an eight-foot-tall living wall flush with fresh herbs that the kitchen will use in its preparations.

LYFE Kitchen will be open seven days a week serving breakfast (dishes range from quinoa buttermilk pancakes and a vegetarian breakfast burrito to a spinach-and-avocado frittata and Greek yogurt bowl with fresh fruit), plus lunch and dinner, plates of which include a burger on an oatmeal bun, sustainably-fished seabass with soba noodles and edamame in a kimchi broth, a Thai curry bowl and a steak with roasted potatoes, cherry tomatoes, caramelized onions and a garlic-parsley broth. Fresh-squeezed juices, filtered waters infused with fruit, vegetables and herbs, and smoothies, along with beer and wine, round out the menu.

The Park Meadows store is scheduled to open in June (a Boulder location is next), and if you're looking for a job, LYFE Kitchen is hiring. "We're looking for people who share our belief in eating good, feeling good and doing good," says DJ. "Working at LYFE Kitchen offers more than just a job; it's an avocation and the first step on a career path to build this new lifestyle brand," he adds.

The restaurant is looking to fill front-of-house and back-of-house positions, and immediate, on-site interviews are currently being held from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. To apply, go to the company's talent recruitment center, located on the upper level of Park Meadows mall, across the corridor from Crate and Barrel and next door to Athleta.

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