Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Life (and LYFE) after McDonald's

Once upon a time, ex-McDonald’s executives were harder to find than a Chicago Cubs World Series ring. It was a grill-cook-to-grave sort of company.

But times change. You can’t run an organization of McDonald’s size without some displacement of talent, whatever the reasons.
Fortunately for those of us who cover the business, the depart-ees can’t shake their unique McDonald’s upbringing—what some alumni call the special sauce. Apply that restaurant acumen to the white-boarding process and you end up with some of the industry’s most intriguing new concepts.

Consider Tom and Eddie’s, the fast-food time machine opened by “retired” McD’s USA president Ed Rensi and one-time exec VP Of operations Tom Dentice. The burgers-and-shakes place is drawing attention from far beyond its suburban Illinois market. The Fast Casual Industry Council made a point of stopping there as one of its dine-arounds in the Chicago area.

Rensi and Dentice have updated the drive-in format, just as the McDonald’s brothers did in the mid-1950s. Then, the breakthrough was a systemization that lowered the price of burgers to 15 cents. Now the innovation is using all-natural fresh ingredients, combined by hand and cooked with care and precision. They’ve tried to put the art back into the business.

But only restaurant geeks or hardcore foodies would appreciate those points. The buzz is because of the food. A longtime industry veteran told me the milkshakes were the best he’d ever tasted, and he downs enough in the course of his field work to affect milk futures.

Now comes word that another former McDonald’s president, former worldwide chief Mike Roberts, is also hatching a fast-casual entrant. The menu is being drafted by Tal Ronnen, a well-known vegetarian chef with a celebrity clientele (Ellen DeGeneres, Arianna Huffington), and Art Smith, the restaurateur (Chicago’s Table Fifty-Two, Washington’s Art and Soul) who formerly served as personal chef to Oprah Wynfrey.

Like Tom & Eddie’s, their LYFE (“Love Your Food Everyday”) will feature food that calls to mind farms, not factories. The team is pledging to use locally sourced materials and to keep all dishes’ calorie count below 600.

The prototype, under construction in Palo Alto, Calif., will feature breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its creators have promised to use eco-friendly building materials. Ditto for the food wrappers and containers.

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