Life Alive gets a makeover in the next act by Panera’s Ron Shaich
BROOKLINE — Ron Shaich is excited about the green juice. “That was invented in my house, seriously,” the Panera Bread founder and former CEO said of the drink sitting in front of him at his restaurant, Life Alive Organic Cafe. “It’s sweet and spicy,” he added, noting the pineapple and jalapeno in the blend.
Over the last few years, Shaich, 65, has been quietly making over the Lowell-born, casual vegetarian restaurant into something that has the potential to scale nationally. Shaich, who lives in Brookline, purchased the business from its founder, Heidi Feinstein, in 2015. His $300 million fund, Act III Holdings, is also an investor in Tatte Bakery and Cafe, Cava, and Clover.
The first incarnation of what Shaich refers to as “Life Alive 2.0” opened last September in Brookline in a space previously occupied by Panera Bread. Another location is set to debut in June on Boylston Street, and there’s an additional Boston-area restaurant in the works as well.
The reinvigorated Life Alive has an airier, trendier feel than the three original locations, in Lowell, Cambridge, and Salem. Produce is displayed behind the counter in wooden crates; live plants sit alongside a drink case filled with kombucha; and, in stark contrast to the Cambridge restaurant, seating is roomy and comfortable. But there are still nods to the restaurant’s hippie roots, including aura photos of employees, macrame wall hangings, and a book about the meaning of dreams set out on a table.
Shaich’s Life Alive has an expanded menu, overseen by his once-personal chef and now the restaurant’s culinary director, Leah Dubois. While the vegetable-filled grain bowls and freshly pressed juices that popularized the original are still available, Dubois has added several new items, including broth and smoothie bowls, CBD coffee, and algae lattes with optional adaptogen “potions.”
This is definitely not Middle America’s Panera Bread. So, what’s Shaich, the man responsible for that brand’s tremendous growth — and an entrepreneur instrumental in creating the massive modern dining category now known as fast-casual — doing running a small local chain?
Naturally, he thinks it makes good business sense. Reducing consumption of meat has become increasingly popular for health and environmental reasons. “Plant-forward is powerful,” Shaich said. “Forty percent of America will tell you in a survey that they’re trying to eat more plants.”
Most of Life Alive’s customers aren’t necessarily vegan or vegetarian, but are trying to eat more nutritiously in general, he added. In fact, Shaich’s desire to improve his health when he turned 60 led him to Life Alive.
“I hired a trainer and ended up becoming much more vegetarian personally, and I ended up discovering Life Alive in Cambridge and the woman who owned it,” he said. “I thought this was a fascinating business and I could help her.”
In 2015, when founder Feinstein accepted Shaich’s offer to buy the restaurant, it seemed like a “dream come true,” she said. As a three-location mini chain, Life Alive was more successful than she had imagined it would be when she started it with a small business loan in 2004, well before turmeric and quinoa became household words. But she had become increasingly stressed by the demands of ownership.
Without much business education or prior restaurant experience, scaling up was proving to be a challenge. Her kitchens were so cramped, for instance, that she couldn’t figure out a way to fit riced cauliflower onto the line as an alternative-grain option. And she was constantly receiving e-mails from fans urging her to bring Life Alive to their town or city, and wanted to, but was having trouble managing just the three locations. On top of running the busy business, she was also caring for her mother, who had lung cancer, and a 2-year-old daughter at the time.
“I was just overwhelmed with the largeness of it all . . . and Ron had been reaching out to me for years,” said Feinstein, who grew up in Marblehead. “I wanted to focus on the things I loved, which was serving people and my employees.”
Feinstein had initially planned to stay on with the company, but things didn’t work out, she said, so she’s no longer involved.
“It was my baby and I really miss it,” she said. “But I just imagine that the soul of Life Alive will live on and it’s in good hands.”
Feinstein is now running a small farm in Elliott, Maine, and plans to open a vegetarian concept in the Seacoast region of New Hampshire, or nearby in Maine, in about a year, once her noncompete agreement ends.
Under Shaich, Life Alive has access to more far more resources than Feinstein ever could have imagined when she first sought funding in the early 2000s — and was initially turned down by potential investors.
“What a shift in 15 years,” Feinstein said. “It makes me happy that these ideas [organic food, vegan diets, sourcing locally] are more mainstream now.”
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At Life Alive, Shaich places a packet of information about his Act III Holdings next to his turmeric and berry-topped yogurt bowl. He started the fund after selling Panera Bread, which he ran for 36 years, to parent company JAB Holding Co. for more than $7 billion in 2017.
“I had this great run with [Panera], and the part I was most excited about . . . was our ability to constantly transform the company,” he said. “What I love as much as anything is figuring out where the world is going and making sure my companies are there when the world arrives into that future.”
In Shaich’s view, the years ahead will include more niche, or speciality, fast-casual, especially in categories considered to be healthful, like Mediterranean and plant-based. “I wanted to take my capital and skills and be of help to the next generation of businesses that were going to be winners — that had the potential to be nationally dominant,” he said. “That started all the way back with Life Alive, before I sold Panera.”
He describes his Act III role as a “restaurant sherpa,” or a trusted adviser, to founders such as Tatte’s Tzurit Or. With a steady flow of money and sound business advice, they can focus on what’s most important, the food, he said. “I call it the discovery muscle,” Shaich said, “which can very quickly get pushed out by the spreadsheets and the reality of business, so we protect it.”
Recently, Shaich has been directing his attention to Boylston Street, where Cava, Tatte, and soon-to-open Life Alive all have locations next to each other. “The only thing we don’t have on Boylston Street is a Clover,” he said.
The market can support all of the concepts because they fill different needs on different days, he said. Expansion isn’t the ultimate goal, but a byproduct of demand and success, Shaich added, noting that he thinks that some of his quick-service competitors have been opening new locations too rapidly.
For Life Alive, the benefits of being owned by a fast-casual pioneer include financial resources, buying power, and streamlined operations. But what has the potential to be lost as a once-modest, indie restaurant scales up? And will Shaich’s relationship with Panera Bread — he still owns stock in the company — affect the ethos of Life Alive?
If you ask chef Dubois, the answer is it hasn’t and won’t. “We’re not trying to disassociate, but there’s really no connection whatsoever other than Ron used to work there,” said Dubois, formerly of Local 149. “We all come from somewhere and have had other jobs. I’ve had guests be upset about it and I’m like, whoa, let’s unpack why you’re so upset right now.”
Tatte owner Or has also made an effort to publicize that Panera Bread is no longer an investor in Tatte. Panera was sold to JAB Holding Co. in July 2017. In January 2018, Shaich acquired the company’s interest in Tatte.
“She runs it and we [Act III Holdings] support her in every sense of the word,” he said.
In many ways, Shaich is actually going back to his roots by focusing his Act III Holdings on Boston restaurants. After attending Clark University and Harvard Business School, he began his career by opening the Cookie Jar in Downtown Crossing in 1981. The next year, it merged with French Bakery Au Bon Pain, and in 1985, the combined business began selling sandwiches made with freshly baked bread.
“Around ’84, ’85, I’d be working the counter at Au Bon Pain in Copley Place, and people would say, ‘Ron, could you slice that baguette from top to bottom?’ Shaich said. “Then they’d pull out a bag from Stop & Shop and put on some roast beef. You don’t have to be all that smart to figure out that people were using the bread not as the end, but as the platform.”
At the time, though, serving deli sandwiches made with just-baked bread in a casual setting was a concept as new as algae lattes and CBD truffles are today.
“At that point we would become the first fresh bakery-cafe essentially in the country,” Shaich said. “And from there, the business took off like lightning.”