Sam Fox has grown to love his True Food Kitchen concept, and he’s discovered that he’s not alone.
The 4-year-old brand, offering quality foods that just happen to be healthful in a hip, casual-dining setting, now boasts six units. Each time a new one opens — most recently in the Cherry Creek neighborhood of Denver — Fox, the founder and chief executive of Fox Restaurant Concepts, said he is surprised at the enthusiasm of the guests.
“We learned how much it was needed,” he said, pointing to the healthful bent that guests seem to embrace happily. “One of our strengths is our regulars. Some come four to five days a week. For whatever reason, that surprised us.”
That reality is sinking in, however. The number of people who care about eating healthfully is on the rise. According to a recent study from foodservice research firm Technomic Inc., 64 percent of consumers said they consider it important to eat healthfully — that’s up from 57 percent in 2010.
And Fox is among them.
He said he initially resisted when well-known health guru Dr. Andrew Weil approached him with the idea for a concept built on an anti-inflammatory diet. But when the talk turned to great-tasting food that just happened to be good for you, the tables turned.
“It’s hard for me to build something I don’t enjoy,” Fox said. “I’m not a big sushi eater. I love Italian food, burgers.” Those loves are reflected in some of the other 38 restaurant brands operated by his Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company, including Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar, Sauce Pizza & Wine and Blanco Tacos + Tequila.
Fox and Weil talked for more than a year about what became the True Food concept. At its core the restaurant needed to be more about the quality of the food and its ingredients than about health.
“I was really the target audience,” Fox said. “We felt we’d get Andy’s guests, but for the brand to be successful it had to appeal to mainstream people — it had to appeal to me. Then I started eating there and it’s become a part of my life.”
Among the menu items are Seafood Caldo, with sea bass, shrimp, collard greens, white beans, cilantro, chile and lime broth; a grass-fed bison burger, with mushrooms, onions, mayonnaise and Parmesan on a flax-seed bun; and roastedwith farro, spinach, cranberries and walnuts.
The menu offers vegetarian and gluten-free items, but purposely does not promise low calories.
“When people eat for calories, they are trying to lose weight, and we’re not trying to help people lose weight,” Fox said. “Losing weight is a byproduct of eating healthy, but the basis of the restaurant is the quality and the ingredients.”
And people are responding to the food. Weil and Fox recently penned the “True Food” cookbook, which hit No. 1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list and has sold 100,000 copies.
True Food now has units in California, Colorado and its home state of Arizona. And the pace of expansion is about to accelerate, with three units to open in 2013 and seven in 2014, Fox said. Deals are closed or pending in such cities as Boston, Dallas and Houston, and several more sites are planned for California. Fox also plans to unveil an as-yet-unnamed fast-casual version of the concept this summer.
Growth is being funded by a lending facility from Scottsdale-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. The casual-dining chain gave True Food a $10 million credit facility in 2009, with the option of acquiring a 51-percent majority interest in the concept. P.F. Chang’s agreed in February 2012 to act on the option.
True Food Kitchen is “aligned with the rising demand for healthier menu options while providing a fun and innovative dining experience. And it provides us with a future growth vehicle where we can employ capital,” Rick Federico, P.F. Chang’s CEO, said at the time.
Other industry leaders see the concept’s potential, too. When asked during a conference late last year what concepts he was watching, Jimmy John Liautaud, CEO and founder of Jimmy John’s Ltd., called True Food Kitchen “off the chart,” adding that the brand “is going to be some rockin’ stuff.”