Founder Ron Shaich, who served as Panera’s CEO from 1984 to 2001, and Keith Pascal, former member of Panera Bread’s Senior Leadership Team and member of the Einstein Bagels start-up team, created Act 3 Holdings, to invest in restaurant start-ups. Since Panera Beach’s revenue reached $5.8 billion in 2022, the duo has an impressive track record of success.
And one of their first investments is an offshoot of the Panera Bread concept, but stressing even healthier food. The duo invested in Life Alive Organic Café, which currently operates 10 cafes, all located in Massachusetts, where it is based. It debuted in 2004 in Lowell, Mass, and specializes in salads, grain and acai bowls, wraps, ramen-stye noodles and smoothies, all made from scratch.
Shaich’s firm acquired it in 2015 when it had 3 locations and has expanded it since then with the original owner departing.
A smoothie and grain bowl eatery, owned by Panera Bread-founder Ron Shaich’s firm, is showing signs of steady growth.
It’s a niche that’s on the rise in the U.S. since it faces heated competition from a slew of rivals including Smoothie King, Tropical Smoothie King and Jamba Juice.
It also serves a bevy of hot drinks including lattes and matchas, making it also feel like a coffeehouse.
Continuing its roots of being connected with Panera Bread, Life Alive Café named Bryan Timko, its CEO, who was previously an SVP at Panera’s from 2014 through 2019, overseeing Concept, Menu Innovation and Culinary, and has an MBA from Harvard Business School.
All of its 10 locations are company-owned, and it has no intention of franchising. Keeping it company-owned enables it to focus on what Timko deems “the guest experience. People franchise as a way to grow fast and tap into someone else’s capital. We don’t want to grow fast but want to get it right.”
So far it has opened one new location in 2023, and has plans for four new ones in 2024, with two of them planned for outside Massachusetts, though it won’t divulge what the new state is.
Having worked closely with Shaich in the past, Timko said that he teaches you, most of all, “to know what matters” in the restaurant business. At Life Alive Cafe, what matters, he suggested, is “positive eating, chef-crafted food that tastes as good as it makes you feel.”
Asked if the food is “healthy,” a word which some CEOs avoid because some consumers view that word as meaning smaller portions and bland-tasting food, Timko said, “We’re striving to be craveable and appeal to positive eaters and healthy is part of it.”
He said it does well in urban markets like Boston which skews more toward higher educated and higher income individuals, as well as with families and suburban markets as well.
It’s open from around 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., in most cases, but asked what percentage of its business derived from each meal, Timko declined to answer.
Timko said it’s gotten the word out about Life Alive, mostly from grassroots marketing, eschewing TV advertising. Since a Nielsen Study revealed that 40% of Americans are looking to incorporate plant-based items into their diets, it’s appealing to a rising number of patrons.
It partners with most third-party deliverers, such as DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats, and digital ordering constitutes about 40% of its overall business.
Shaich is not only an investor but his company, Act 3 Holdings, offers consumer insights, strategies, and guidance on technology, operations, real-estate and growth. Hence, he operates like a consultant to Life Alive as well as investor/owner.
Asked what differentiates Life Alive Café from its many competitors, Timko replied that several of them use pre-packaged ingredients but it relies on “fresh produce and whole grains coming through the back door every day. We’re chef-driven.”
Timko also told an anecdote about an unnamed coffeehouse near where he lives, which removed all the seating because it prefers to rely on off-premises sales, fast-in and fast-out, with as minimal human interaction as possible. He calls Life Alive, more of a third place, a phrase coined by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz as a place to go outside of your home to frequent and meet people.
Life Alive Café relies on 3,000 to 3,500 square feet with ample seating, where you could sit and meet a friend and talk. “We encourage dining in,” he said proudly, noting how it differentiates it from many of its rivals.
Yelp responders tended to be quite positive with some reservations. Thomas from Bristol, Ct, raved about his Mediterranean falafel wrap, saying his “taste buds are still doing the salsa.” He called it a “Mediterranean feast for your taste buds.”
But Julia from Sylmar, Calif, liked that the idea that the food was organic but thought it tasted bland. But Priscilla from Portland, Maine, had the Southwest Sol bowl and her friend got the rainbow nori, and thought the ingredients were “fresh and went seamlessly well together.”
Asked the keys to its sustained success, Timko replied that it wants to maintain its tasty, positive food, and keep investing in it as the third place, “which everyone else is running against.”