More than 20 years ago, Rod Silva came up with an innovative idea for a restaurant: Make what everyone already likes to eat but in the healthiest way possible.
At the time, Silva, who calls himself “really passionate about healthy living and eating right,” was having difficulty finding nutritious —and tasty — options when he went out to eat. So he decided to do it himself, and in 1995 he opened Muscle Maker Grill in New Jersey.
“Who doesn’t like a chicken fajita?” he said. “We’ll do a chicken fajita wrap with reduced-fat cheese, fat-free sour cream, fresh-grilled, all-natural chicken, and put some fresh sauce in there. Boom! You get all the flavor you love with only 40 or 50% of the fat and less calories.”
This week, Now the fast-casual eatery opened a location in Santa Ana, and is slated to open another in Irvine, marking the restaurant’s first appearance in Orange County.
While Muscle Maker Grill may have started off as an innovative concept, fast-casual restaurants branded as healthy — including Lyfe Kitchen, Tender Greens and Veggie Grill — are now commonplace all over Orange County. But Silva still sees Muscle Maker Grill as standing out from the competition.
“We’re going to make the food you already love first,” he said. “Most other companies go from the back way forward. They say, ‘We have organic butternut squash. How do we make it taste good?’ I say it’s gotta be your favorite food. It’s gotta be great taste and something you’d love to eat daily.”
This approach, Silva explained, helps in getting people to make long-lasting changes in their eating habits.
“This is a lifestyle brand,” he said. “To change your lifestyle, you can’t ever do diets, because diets don’t last. People get out of shape, then they eat carrots and celery for two weeks, then go back.
“They key to success is to let people eat the flavors and tastes that they already like,” he said. “That’s what keeps them on their journey for a long time.”
Dishes that will be featured in the new Orange County restaurants include crunchy wraps, fresh salads made from a “power blend” of spinach, kale and romaine, flatbread pizzas, fruit smoothies and brown rice and quinoa bowls. Customers who crave more standard fast-food fare can order burgers topped with bacon and sodas.
While Muscle Maker Grill boasts the healthfulness of its food, Silva said no strict nutritional guidelines are in place. Lyfe Kitchen, for instance, stipulates that all dishes must be under 600 calories and 1,000 mg. of sodium, but Muscle Maker relies a “common sense approach” that Silva said means no added salt or sugar, using wholesome, natural ingredients and avoiding highly processed chemicals.
“We’re never going to replace something good to drop on calories,” he said, pointing to the example of fat-free cheese, which is filled with artificial ingredients. “If we can’t get a natural fat-free product, we won’t use it. We’re not going to go to that game to manipulate those numbers.”
Nonetheless, the calorie content of dishes will be displayed in each restaurant, while customers can look up the nutritional information online.
The aquisition of Muscle Maker Grill in January by Irvine-based American Restaurant Holdings Inc. has aided the company’s recent expansion into the Southern California market. The restaurant currently has locations in 12 states, including two shops in Northern California.
“When I was looking for a partner to grow the company with, I liked that they were out in Southern California and their commitment to building our brand here,” said Silva of American Restaurant Holdings.
In addition to the restaurants opening in Santa Ana and Irvine this month, Muscle Maker Grill has entered into a partnership with the Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where it will sell selected wraps, bowls and soups as grab-and-go items at Angels Corner Market.
Outside of Orange County, Silva said, the company is planning to open locations in Los Angeles County by the end of the summer, and is eyeing opportunities in San Diego as well.
The new restaurants will also offer delivery meal plans, so that customers can order meals for the whole week online and have them delivered directly to their homes. Silva said this service is perfect for busy families who don’t always have time to prepare healthy dishes.
For Silva, this option is just another way to make eating healthy as easy as possible.
“The hurdles in this business are that people think healthy food doesn’t taste good,” he said. “That healthy food is too inconvenient, and that it’s too expensive. So we’re going to have great tasting food that’s convenient. We’re going to do eat-in, take-out, meal plans, delivery. We’re going to have locations everywhere in America, and it’ll be equal to or cheaper than all the competitors out there, including fast food.”
The new Muscle Maker Grill restaurants are located at 2775 N. Main St. in Santa Ana and 2646 DuPont Drive in Irvine.
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, firstname.lastname@example.org