These days, it seems as though ultra-healthy and trendy eateries are popping up everywhere. Especially among the upper class, there has been a growing interest in foods labeled as “local,” “sustainable,” “vegan,” or “organic.” The food industry has responded, offering Earth-friendly meals often at less-than-wallet-friendly prices. But are these restaurants actually dedicated to the lifestyle they promote or are they just cashing in on the trend?
Central Square’s Life Alive—with its abundant kale, mason jars filled with fresh-pressed juice, and potted plants adorning every windowsill—sits firmly in the former category. Life Alive’s guiding philosophy of sharing the power of healthy food sets its offerings of organic smoothies and quinoa bowls apart from other trendy restaurants with similar offering.
Founder Heidi Feintsein first opened the restaurant, an “urban oasis and organic café,” in Lowell, MA in 2004. Laura Aldorisio, longtime employee of Life Alive, explains that Feintsein “wanted to create an urban oasis where people could truly just relax and rejuvenate themselves through nutritious eating.”
Life Alive started with Feintsein’s mission to provide healthy food, but this mission has grown to encompass more. Now, the restaurant aims to provide an opportunity for patrons to alter their pace of living. Employees share the belief that “the aspect of wellness is really important in this ‘go go go’ society,” Aldrioso explains. They strive to create an environment where customers can both eat something nurturing and take a break from the craziness of life. Diners cozy up in intimate nooks or sit down at communal tables and window seats with warm bowls full of organic grains, legumes, and vegetables and satisfying juices and smoothies. Many customers appreciate the sense of community and comfort that comes with this total atmosphere, Aldrioso reports.
Beyond creating a nurturing environment, Life Alive also strives to serve “scrumptious, unprocessed, whole meals,” according to their website. Produce is always fresh and organic, and locally grown when possible. For example, one of their most popular menu items is “The Goddess Bowl,” a unique dish including ginger nama shoyu sauce with carrots, beet, broccoli, dark greens, and tofu over short-grain brown rice. But the food is about more than the ingredients; Life Alive’s website welcomes guests with a mission statement that states, “a delicious meal, no matter how simple, is the starting point for nurturing the body and soul, and at the same time, the family and even the community at large.”
Employees, as well as costumers, embrace the message that Life Alive is spreading. According to Aldorisio, working at Life Alive, employees not only learn about food and nutrition but also teach others about healthy living and mindfulness. She likes that “[employees] get to grow. Most people come [to work for Life Alive] at the right time, are drawn to it, and grow with it.”
But it’s not just team members who are learning from Life Alive. Aldorisio describes the customer demographic as diverse, from the newly health conscious to those who have been committed to organic or vegetarian eating for decades. “And then,” she explains, “we have people that are omnivores, very meat and potato kind of people. When they come and they taste the difference, they can’t really believe it. And after time you see the difference.”
Though the menu is vegetarian, Aldorioso says the founders made this decision to be open and welcoming, not to exclude people. “We have vegan and vegetarian options, but we are not dogmatic with that,” she says. “The main thing we want to promote is really about eating as nutrient dense and as clean as possible.”
While Feinstein believes deeply in the mission of her restaurants and its potential benefits to customers and employees, her staff also admits that part of Life Alive’s success is due to opening in the right place at the right time. “The country and the world is in a health crisis, and a lot of that has to do with food,” Aldoriso explains. “People are starting to want to take control of their health, people are starting to look at what is going on with health practices, people are waking up. There is a lot of awareness. Food can make you sicker, inhibited.”
But as media messages and culinary trends are push many consumers towards health foods, it’s important to remember that Life Alive’s offerings of expensive fare and idealistic mantras are not accessible to everyone. As gentrification pushes lower-income residents out neighborhoods like Central Square, it makes more room for people more likely to frequent Life Alive, and for more restaurants like Life Alive to open in the future.
Since Life Alive’s Lowell debut in 2004, two more locations have opened, in Central Square, in 2010, and Salem, in 2012. The restaurants have already changed the areas around each location, the employees say. Aldorisio explains, “It created an environment where people flocked to connect. It made each environment healthier.” In Central Square, for example, several yoga studios have opened up nearby to serve the newly health-conscious population. And Life Alive has competition for veggie-loving customers; Veggie Galaxy opened just down the street in September 2011, and O2 Yoga opened a small vegan café inside its Cambridge studio in June 2013.
Life Alive may owe its success to consumers’ growing willingness to spend extra money in the pursuit of health, but unlike many other competitors in its niche, Life Alive serves up its grilled wraps and simple snacks with a philosophy of self- and community improvement through food. The neighborhoods surrounding Life Alive’s locations have shifted and adapted to this increased association between food and lifestyle, though, and as gentrification of these and other communities continues, it is likely that more places of this nature will pop up.All photos by Hannah Ryde.