Just about every company has an articulated mission. While for some there is a long line connecting the dots between, say, a widget and saving the world, True Food Kitchen has a more obvious and plausible purpose. Its restaurants serve healthy food that, put simply, makes you feel good to be there.
The healthy eating foundation of True Food Kitchen is based on an anti-inflammatory food pyramid as designed by integrative medicine doctor and company founder Andrew Weil. His approach combines conventional healthcare with complementary and alternative therapies, and the cornerstone of his ethos is that processed foods and imbalanced diets (specifically deficiencies in fruits and vegetables) are the source of many illnesses or can exacerbate disease with genetic or environmental causes.
But doctors are not typically restaurateurs, so Weil needed people from the hospitality industry to develop and grow the concept. Today there are 42 True Food Kitchen locations in 17 states, with 4 added in 2022 and 8 to 10 planned in 2023. No one is better versed at establishing those new locations than Chuck Chavez, the company’s vice president of real estate and development.
Chavez has worked in real estate development for more than 30 years, and 22 of those years were also with a national casual-dining chain (with a decidedly different menu). In fact, his father was a restaurant facilities manager, as well. He has enjoyed his career, and even speaks of learning the fine art of lease terminations during the 2008 to 2010 recession as a good learning experience.
But Chavez’s engagement with True Food Kitchen is a whole new experience. He joined the company in 2016 and remains a true believer in the mission. It’s the driver in everything he does.
His job is to first identify new locations. Most True Food Kitchen units go into existing buildings that are appropriate for both lunch and dinner occasions. The presence of existing restaurants in the neighborhood is generally regarded as good, as are local population demographics showing higher education levels, parking access, and sufficient visibility from streets and roads. The starting point is to calculate a likely sales volume at a potential location, then work backwards to see if the lease, build-out, and operations are affordable.
Not surprisingly, the identification of locations is critical in the successful expansion of the business. So much so, True Food Kitchen CEO Christine Barone as well as the company’s chief financial officer and general counsel engage with Chavez in the process. “Location is marketing, after all,” Chavez says.
Real estate costs for this kind of restaurant and its clientele are up in the post-pandemic period. Demand for space is higher than supply, making it somewhat competitive. But given the aesthetics and brand, “landlords come to us,” Chavez says. “They like the clientele we bring.”
The build-outs are clean and open, filled with natural light, affording clear sightlines from the dining room to the kitchen. Almost all locations have outdoor dining as well—a favorite in the pandemic/post-pandemic era—and adaptive to the region where the restaurant is located. “Understand, what we build in Miami is different from what goes up in Jacksonville [Florida] and Chicago,” says Chavez. “The overall feel is always on brand, but it’s also designed for the location.”
Local architects and artists are part of the teams working for Chavez. Chairs and tables are lighter weight as “there’s a lot of movement of the furniture,” Chavez notes. Many of them are the classic “Marais” painted metal design, typically seen in Parisian cafes.
What True Food Kitchen restaurants do not need are freezers. The food, including bar ingredients, is freshly prepared. The space saved is instead put to work in produce coolers and food prep areas. While locations vary in size—they average around 6,000 square feet, with about 2,200 square feet dedicated to the kitchen—proportionally more kitchen space is allocated to cutting up fruits and vegetables than typical fast-casual chains that fry foods held in freezers.
Chavez says they are testing smaller-format concepts and “ghost kitchens,” those that handle orders for delivery only. He doesn’t mind that the food is the draw, minus the in-restaurant dining experience, because he’s a Weil believer.
Given his long tenure in the business, Chavez is used to working with younger colleagues whose ages mirror a larger portion of the restaurant’s customer base. Does that mean there’s a disconnect in working styles or methodologies, particularly given the hip nature of True Food Kitchens?
“I really don’t get pushback from anyone,” Chavez says. “I enjoy different perspectives and celebrate diverse views. I learned early in my career there isn’t a single way to skin a cat. There are some great minds in the younger people I work with.”
He also appreciates the nature of the restaurant staff themselves. “We have like-minded servers who are passionate about nutrition and conscientious about food sourcing,” he says. “This is the greatest job I’ve ever had. I want to retire healthy.”