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Jax Daily Record Friday, May 4, 201805:20 AM EST

True Food Kitchen’s healthy concept

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CEO Christine Barone says St. Johns Town Center location, resident demand brought chain to city.

True Food Kitchen CEO Christine Barone expects North Florida residents will enjoy the opportunity to dine on the company’s health-driven, seasonal food.

“We will find lots of guests in Jacksonville interested in eating well and eating great food,” Barone said. 

True Food was developed in 2008 by entrepreneur Sam Fox with alternative medicine celebrity doctor Andrew Weil. 

Christine Barone was an investment banker and then a Starbucks executive before becoming CEO of True Food Kitchen in 2016.

The casual-dining brand says it emphasizes simple ingredients and preparation to highlight natural health benefits. It offers vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options as well as meats and fish.

Support of the Jacksonville restaurant, which Barone expects will open by year-end, is indicated by prospective customers who want it here.

“We’ve gotten messages from guests in Jacksonville to say to please open in Jacksonville,” said Barone, who is accustomed to such requests, including from her sister in Orlando.

Barone said Phoenix-based True Food Kitchen, with 22 restaurants operating in 10 states, signed a lease with Simon Property Group for the former Mitchell’s Fish Market at St. Johns Town Center.

Barone declined to share lease terms, but said the company makes long-term commitments to the communities in which it operates.

She said the restaurants typically employ about 150 people.

Spring asparagus toast is on the menu at True Food Kitchen. It features roasted cipollini onion, green garbanzo, tahini, mint and hemp seed.

They also are designed to be lighter and brighter than most restaurants, “and really kind of uplift you as you are eating your meal.”

The city approved interior and some exterior demolition of the 11-year-old restaurant at 5205 Big Island Drive. 

In addition, the city is reviewing a permit application to build-out the 7,540-square-foot interior and 1,064-square-foot exterior.

Wolford Retail Builders Inc. of Tampa is the contractor and Aria Architect of Oak Park, Illinois, is the architect.

Barone said True Food looked at the area for about 18 months, starting before Mitchell’s became available. Mitchell’s closed over New Year’s weekend. 

Barone said each restaurant location is different, while reflecting the brand’s focus.

She said the regional draw of St. Johns Town Center, and the specific site near the entrance, were factors in the decision.

The patio area in the quadrant of restaurants that include True Food also was a draw.

“Patios are a big part of our brand and part of the experience, so I’ m always looking for a place to create a brand,” Barone said.

The location is by J. Alexander’s, Cantina Laredo and The Capital Grille.

True Food’s menu rotates four times a year “to let guests experience great-tasting ingredients at the peak of their freshness,” says truefoodkitchen.com.

The Mediterranean chicken pita features grilled flatbread, romaine, arugula, grape, house pickle, red onion, feta and harissa tahini.

The menu includes vegetables, starters, salads, pizzas, bowls, sandwiches, entrees, desserts and drinks.

Think charred cauliflower, edamame dumplings, grilled chicken salad, tomato and arugula pizza, a teriyaki quinoa bowl, grass-fed burgers and entrees such as seabass, grilled salmon, steak tacos and spaghetti squash casserole.

There also is a brunch menu, a children’s menu, cocktails, seasonal wines, local beers, coffee and tea.

Included on the menu are gluten-free, naturally organic, vegetarian and vegan offerings.

As for the pizzas, “my kids can’t tell we have flax and spelt in the crust,” said Barone, who is married with three children.

Food costs are slightly higher because True Food Kitchen’s made-from-scratch menu  focuses on organic foods and grass-fed beef and antibiotic-free meat.

True Food Kitchen operates two restaurants in Florida, in Boca Raton and Naples. 

Barone attended high school in Tampa and returned after college and worked in the state in the 1990s. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in applied mathematics and MBA from Harvard Business School.

She began her career as an investment banker and was the senior vice president of food, evenings and licensed stores at Starbucks before joining True Food Kitchen as CEO in September 2016.

Before Starbucks, she was a management consultant with Bain & Co.

Barone sees opportunities in Florida.

Her parents live in Tampa. “It would be special to open a restaurant in Tampa,” she said, and her sister “begs me every night” for an Orlando location.

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