- April 8, 2020
David Osterweil left a successful job as director of business development for the Outback Steakhouse chain to start his own healthy prepared meals company.
It was on the advice of Outback founder Chris Sullivan, who kept telling him that one day he would have to own his own business. Sullivan seemed to know that Osterweil was too entrepreneurial to stay in a more corporate setting. The final push came when the two were traveling together on business.
"We were in a restaurant in New Orleans and Chris says, 'David, you've got to go run something,'” Osterweil says.
Osterweil knew Sullivan was right, and at the beginning of 2011 he launched Fitlife Foods, a store with healthy but hearty prepared meals for busy people.
It was no spur-of-the-moment, leisure-time venture. He spent a year working nights and weekends to build and refine his business plan. Then he and his wife sold all their stocks and investments and obtained a Small Business Administration loan using their house as collateral.
Osterweil, a fourth-generation Tampa native, knew what he wanted to do with the prepared healthy food concept: make good fuel convenient. Customers can pick up three to four days of meals in the refrigerated section of a Fitlife Foods store, or a single meal or snack.
He and his wife are both marathon runners, work full time and they have two children. They are their own target demographic: busy professionals with a bent toward healthy eating. They know it and want it, and given Osterweil's experience in many aspects of the OSI operations, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
So they threw everything in.
One of Osterweil's first decisions was also one of the most critical. He hired Andrew Ruga, the head baker at Canyon Ranch Resort in Tucson, Ariz., to lead the culinary center in South Tampa that supplies all the stores in the Tampa Bay area.
“I came out here really for the opportunity to get in on a concept that wanted to do something for people and not just sell product,” Ruga says. “The goal is to create this life-enriching experience. That's a lot of what I was doing where I was working, doing health food there ... You don't need to go to a fancy resort.”
While the food is healthy, it also is meant to be filling and packed with nutrition and energy.
“This is not diet. This is real food,” Osterweil says. For instance, Fitlife serves a mac 'n cheese meal that includes carrots, onions and grains. Even the desserts are healthier with grains and fruits, but still taste like desserts.
The target audience is yuppies, but not just young ones — professionals willing to spend a little on fast, healthy food. The South Tampa/Hyde Park/Bayshore Gardens area was the market for Fitlife's flagship store and it has done strong business. Fitlife has three stores and is opening a fourth soon in St. Pete. It serves 40,000 meals per month and has 50 employees — half of whom are in the culinary center preparing meals.
Fitlife has the potential to go beyond young professionals. In its Clearwater store, adult children are buying the meals for their elderly parents, stocking their refrigerators.
Fitlife is a market-based concept, planning to put in four to eight stores in a metro area. It requires a dense population with plenty of busy professionals. Osterweil says he will be looking at Miami, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., because those are all cities he has lived in and fit the desired market.
He just wrapped up a $1 million capital raise, drawing on family and friends, including current and former OSI people and a senior member of Bain Capital that invested individually, not as part of Bain.
A nice boost this year has come from a contract to provide meals to the Republican National Convention.
Osterweil got a call one day asking if his store could cater the Committee on Arrangements. “I didn't even know what the Committee on Arrangements was,” he says. “They had us come down and I said, 'Oh, it's the RNC.'”
Fitlife did a few catering events for the committee and Osterweil gave a presentation. Three weeks later, Fitlife was selected. But the company still had to get contracts. Those contracts included NBC News, MSNBC, Brighthouse Networks, the convention operations group and the network TV pool. He estimates he'll sell 12,000 meals for the week.
But the RNC work actually started for Fitlife on Aug. 1 because the company fed the crew building the stage. And the work goes through Sept. 7 to feed the crew tearing down the stage.
Was the RNC the perfect fit? Osterweil is coy about his personal politics: “My political leaning is anyone who wants to eat healthy, delicious food.”