Mike Donahue is a persuasive man by profession.

It is what he’s done throughout his communications career in government affairs, branding and public relations, and now as an entrepreneur. In fact, there’s a good chance everyone reading this article has been touched by Donahue’s work.

For more than two decades, Donahue crafted messages for McDonald’s Corporation as the burger giant’s chief of corporate communications. He has since left the company to start a new venture, LYFE Kitchen Restaurants, which on the face of it seems to be about a very different eating experience. Indeed it is, but much of what Donahue learned about consumer dining behaviors in the past applies to his role at LYFE today.

LYFE stands for “love your food everyday,” and it is sometimes described as the Whole Foods of fast-casual restaurants. Its gourmet, “chef-inspired” menu offers fare such as quinoa pancakes, grilled artichokes, grass-fed beef burgers, and kale and avocado salads, which are sourced as locally as possible in the farm-to-fork movement otherwise known as locavorism. An open floor plan allows diners to see into the kitchen, where there are herbs growing on vegetated walls. Sustainable building materials ensure optimal indoor air quality.

“It’s an entire menu with integrity,” Donahue says. “We provide meals that taste great, in a warm and inviting environment. It happens to be healthy.”

That’s LYFE’s marketing message, in that order: taste, atmosphere, sustainability, and if pressed, health. Donahue’s decades of experience as a communicator in the food business shine through in that intentional ordering. He knows that selling people on health claims can be problematic; it can create expectations of high prices and poor taste. When it’s time to eat out, even in the growing fast-casual market segment, people primarily think of taste satisfaction and the general experience. Healthiness in a menu is secondary. It grants eaters permission to enjoy what they are eating—and to come back.

“Marketing and communications executives must be the Relevancy barometer for today’s companies.”

Which is why Donahue—in partnership with Chance Carlisle, now LYFE’s CEO and a veteran multiunit restaurateur coming from a major Wendy’s franchisee organization—is the right person to grow this enterprise. Along with Carlisle, he understands the somewhat bipolar nature of what consumers say versus what they do. While McDonald’s has for decades been a lightning rod for nutrition criticism, millions of people nonetheless flock to eat there everyday.

LYFE’s messaging, however oblique, is working. After debuting the concept with the company’s first unit in Palo Alto, California, in 2011, the chain has expanded from California to Illinois (four restaurants in Chicago), New York, Colorado, Texas, Tennessee, and Nevada, with eighteen restaurants operating now and as many as ten more in 2016.  The company plans to expand to between 100 and 150 stores within five years.

LYFE has also attracted private financing from restaurant developer Carlisle Corporation and is now headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee. According to a report in QSR Magazine, the per-person check is between $8 and $12, skewing higher at dinner because the restaurants serve beer and wine.

The restaurants occupy a small niche within their respective markets, such that large traditional marketing expenditures are an inefficient means to attract customers. Earned and social media make the difference; LYFE works within the various platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram—as skillfully as the best of them. In earned media, the LYFE story has passed before 2.5 billion sets of eyeballs.

Still, the success of this venture and any other restaurant relies heavily on its employees. Even the best reputation generated through a YouTube video gone viral falls apart if service is lousy or the arugula is limp.

Donahue explains the company’s advantage in this regard. “People gravitate to our brand,” he says. “When we open a new store we get many applicants for manager jobs. People with degrees, amateur athletes, and foodie types are drawn to what they’ve heard about LYFE.” The company looks for upbeat personalities, Donahue says. “Employees have to enjoy the experience. Of course many hope to grow with us,” he adds.

Not surprisingly, LYFE draws people who believe the healthiness of the menu should be shouted from the rooftops. However, while there is nothing wrong with true believers on staff, they have to stay on message, according to Donahue. They learn the consumer isn’t yet on board with what a triathlete already knows. Further, store crews are also given creative leeway in how they wear their
uniforms. “We allow a wink in the brand,” he notes.

While older and larger companies tend to be run by operations and financial leaders, Donahue explains that this enterprise at this stage is perhaps best served by those of the persuasion professions. “Marketing and communications executives must be the relevancy barometer for today’s companies,” Donahue says. “They need an increasing voice on the corporate board and management tables.”

In other words, Donahue asserts that two-way communication is required for LYFE’s creative message to be fully realized.