A $100 million investment will take the health-focused brand to more audiences than ever.
CEO Christine Barone wants True Food Kitchen to be a catalyst. That mission is a timeworn one in foodservice. Take healthy food and crack down the barriers. Brands from salad to smoothie to bowl and plant-based have given this aim a shot over the decades. But few derived from building blocks as deep seated as True Food Kitchen, which was conceptualized in 2008 from science and the anti-inflammatory food pyramid—the brainchild of its founder, Dr. Andrew Weil. Prolific restaurateur Sam Fox also helped create True Food Kitchen before selling it to P.F. Chang’s in 2012.
You don’t attract investments from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz without that kind of vision, says Barone, a former senior vice president of food at Starbucks, who joined the NextGen Casual in 2016.
And the same notion applies to its latest chapter. True Food Kitchen on September 8 closed a $100 million-plus funding round—the largest in the chain’s 14-year history. Centerbridge Partners, a private-equity firm directing $34 billion in capital that once owned P.F. Chang's for six-and-a-half years, led the fundraising alongside newcomers HumanCo and Manna Tree. HumanCo brought in additional star power in Nick Jonas and his wife and actress, Priyanka Chopra. Lion Capital is also an investor in True Food Kitchen.
“All of those little things add up to a really big mission,” Barone says. “So when I look at the importance of what we’re trying to do, really, what the new investment allows us to do, is to bring True Food to more people in more ways.”
Beyond expanding store count—Barone says 42-unit, 17-state True Food Kitchen plans to open more than 10 units over the next two years—the $100 million will fuel the creation and eventual rollout of a fast casual. Barone says True Food Kitchen’s counter-service spin-off is currently “nascent” in terms of development. It’s going to sit somewhere between 1,800–2,500 square feet (roughly half the size of a typical store) and bring the price point down. True Food Kitchen’s check average today runs $48–$52 per person.
Off-premises flow will key the layout and a potential drive-thru could loom down the road. Ignited by COVID, business outside True Food Kitchen’s four walls has settled at about 30 percent of sales.
The brand implemented QR codes in recent years to allow guests to quicken their lunch experience, if they want. And it introduced to-go friendly options like family meals, as well as launching a ghost kitchen with a limited menu near its corporate office where the venue closed on Tuesdays to test out new items and plot further innovation.
What COVID revealed, Barone says, was True Food Kitchen’s digital and dine-in businesses could be approached as two different entities. “They might be run out of the same kitchen and the same restaurant, but we need to start thinking about them differently and the guest who comes to us to celebrate a baby shower with her friends—she’s the same person but in a very different mood when she’s getting pickup on Thursday nights,” she told FSR earlier in the year.
The fast casual goes a step further. “Like many of our peers, we learned a lot of things during COVID and we saw how well our brand worked online,” Barone says. “We saw how well our brand worked off-premises. And I think all of our best ideas and where we need to go next usually comes from our guest if we’re listening in the right way. When I look at what our guests have shared with us, and how they want True to be more of their daily life, designing a concept that is really for daily use is something that’s pretty exciting.”
It fits into the broader scope of True Food Kitchen. Barone wants to take the brand’s guardrails and apply them to something more convenient and agile from a development angle. Also, she says, address the healthy lunch and dinner on-the-go category, the latter of which is often lacking in quick service.
“Obviously we have a strong brand in that space,” she says. “But there hasn’t been as much strength in that dinner space [overall] and I think when you look at where off-premises is, we have healthy growth in both segments, but I think we look at that balance of sales with some of the third parties that dinner is slightly more of an occasion than lunch. And people typically want something a little heartier, maybe something warm.”
“I think the other players in the healthy space don’t serve that as well right now,” Barone continues. “So there’s a real whitespace opportunity for that.”
The full-service brand itself has “a very long runway” ahead, she adds. When Barone came on board, True Food Kitchen had 12 locations. Expansion has been methodical since due to a variety of reasons, such as the fact each venue looks a bit different—a recent Miami opening is 11,291 square feet and seats 385 in the dining room—and ensuring integrity-driven sourcing and menu ideation doesn’t spread itself too broad. For instance, Barone tells an anecdote where one of the recent investors took his wife to True Food Kitchen. She looked for Brussel sprouts on a summer menu and came up empty. “I’m sure lots of brands make a lot of money off of Brussels in the summer,” Barone says, “but guess what? They don’t taste as good and they’re not in the height of their season. So if you make that decision that can hurt the brand over the long-term and hurt our mission of helping people understand, wow, Brussels are amazing and you don’t always have to put bacon with them.”
Barone likes to say fare at True Food Kitchen is “a journey in itself.” The brand’s education piece and steadfast principles have created a tribe-like fanbase over the years, and one that can’t simply clone itself in cookie-cutter boxes as fast as possible. Efforts like pineapples boiled in the back of the house or avocado Key Lime Pie with kudzu root, which is purported to stabilize blood sugar as you’re eating.
Other signatures include an Ancient Grains Bowl, Grass-fed Burger, and Edamame Dumplings.
Barone says True Food Kitchen will deploy the $100 million toward growing its main concept out of the gate. That will be the primary focus while it gives the fast casual time to incubate and refine “as we eventually ramp up the rollout of that,” she says.
Expansion near-term will include infilling current markets alongside some new ones, although details are developing. But Barone is confident True Food Kitchen will resonate wherever it lands.
“We are in the coast but we’re also in the middle of the country,” she says. “I do think that there is a level of awareness and knowledge of how food impacts the way we feel. So what’s really neat is just going into new markets that traditionally haven’t gotten as much focus from health and wellness players. Being really successful in those markets has given us the confidence to continue to grow and to accelerate that growth.”
From a high level, Barone believes there’s a convergence taking place today where consumers have renewed fascination with their own health and the tools to influence it. Everything from Apple’s new watches to a growing consciousness around food.
“And I also think that growing awareness of how and what we eat impacts the health of the planet,” Barone says. “So when you look at all of those things together, I think our mission becomes more and more relevant.”
HumanCo and Manna Tree have bought in. “If you look at who we have as investors, a common theme is a real belief we can make the world a better place through better food,” Barone says.
“Manna Tree is excited to partner with Christine Barone and her team as they continue to be the leading restaurant fundamentally based on science, which ensures all of its craveable dishes work to increase the longevity of our people and the planet," adds Brent Drever, co-founder and president of Manna Tree.