If ever a single individual could usher in the next wave in dining—or fitness or reading or philosophy—it would almost certainly be Oprah Winfrey. News broke Wednesday that Winfrey would be investing an undisclosed sum in health-focused chain True Food Kitchen. She has also joined the board of directors as its eighth member. Private equity firm Centerbridge will remain the restaurant’s controlling shareholder.
Already industry analysts are buzzing as to whether the so-called Oprah Effect will bolster True Food Kitchen’s recent growth spurt. Under CEO Christine Barone, the Phoenix, Arizona–based concept has doubled its footprint in the last two years, going from 12 in 2016 to 23 today with two more expected to open before yearend.
"As we plan to double in size over the next three years, we will be opening up a significant number of restaurants and really do need financing to help fund that growth," Barone told AdAge.
While it is Winfrey’s first investment in a restaurant chain, she has made other passes in the food world. In 2014, she worked with Starbucks to launch Teavana Oprah Chai Tea with part of the proceeds benefiting her educational foundation. Last year she partnered with Kraft Heinz for a line of prepared dishes called O, That’s Good! And in 2015, she bought a roughly 10 percent stake in Weight Watchers; she has since become a spokesperson for the brand and appeared in several commercials. Per Barone, there are no plans for Winfrey to take on a similar role at True Food Kitchen. Rather, she will serve as a consultant, offering her business expertise in guiding the company.
Winfrey first dined at True Food Kitchen with her friend and fitness trainer Bob Greene. The experience prompted her to reach out to the brand, and earlier this year she invited Barone to lunch at her home where the two discussed the brand, its mission, and its future.
"I love bringing people together over a good meal," Winfrey said in a statement. "When I first dined at True Food Kitchen, I was so impressed with the team's passion for healthy eating and, of course, the delicious food, that I knew I wanted to be part of the company's future."
True Food Kitchen was founded by restaurateur Sam Fox and holistic wellness doctor Andrew Weil in 2008. A figurehead in whole food movement, Weil developed the anti-inflammatory pyramid, which has been a guiding principle for True Food Kitchen. The restaurant puts vegetables, fruits, and whole grains center stage with minimal animal proteins.
A health craze has swept the fast-casual world with chains like Sweetgreen, Modern Market, and Lemonade cropping up across the country; Fox even developed a limited-service sister concept to True Food Kitchen called Flower Child, which has grown to more than a dozen locations. Nevertheless, full service has yet to see a multi-unit player take the healthy-eating mantle as once mighty brands like Applebee’s and TGI Fridays struggle to adapt to consumer demand.
"There's really not a competitor in the full-service dining space for True Food Kitchen," Barone told CNBC. "And I think that's because many believed that you couldn't have a singularly focused healthy restaurant compete in this market."
If the Oprah Effect is to be believed, Wednesday’s announcement could change that perception across the industry.