As he tells it, David Osterweil didn’t taste salt until 2009. The then-Bloomin’ Brands executive and his wife had just gotten through their newborn daughter’s first year, spent mostly in the hospital dealing with complications of a genetic disorder.
To unwind, the couple booked a stay at the luxury wellness resort Canyon Ranch, where Osterweil made a gustatory breakthrough in how he tasted food.
“I was in the airport coming home, and I literally tasted salt for the first time in my life,” he says. “My palate was completely retrained in a week. [Canyon Ranch] had these made-from-scratch sauces and spice blends that had been flavoring this food, and the lightbulb went off. I said, I have to figure out how to bring this to people in their everyday lives.”
In 2011, Tampa native Osterweil launched Fitlife Foods. A combination of a restaurant and mail-order service, Fitlife produces around 65 different breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack options that can be purchased at a Fitlife retail location or delivered to your home. To bring the food up to par with Canyon Ranch, Osterweil made an obvious decision: Hire one of the resort’s chefs, Andrew Ruga. He is now Fitlife’s vice president of culinary innovation and corporate chef, designing each meal with input from his fellow team members.
“I moved across the country to start this concept here with David,” Ruga says. “Everyone had a lot on the table in the early days, and I think that’s part of what helped define Fitlife and to this day still sustains it. We’re committed to what’s happening here.”
Starting from a 24-hour cooking, assembling and packing process in the small kitchen of the South Tampa store (“I didn’t sleep a lot,” admits Ruga), Fitlife has grown to be the largest fresh meal prep company in the Southeast. The company opened a roughly 15,000 square-foot culinary center in Plant City in 2015 to accommodate expansion.
Inside, an 1,100 square-foot kitchen space is the only place meals are outside of the cold. Cooked ingredients then move from a blast chiller to prep areas, where team members assemble the meals in precise proportions within food- and microwave-safe plastic containers. Assembly rooms are kept at a chilly 36 degrees to ensure quality and safety.
“The biggest thing we’re always trying to go for here is food safety and flavor,” Ruga says. “It’s got to taste good, but it’s got to be safe.”
Flavor was a key component for Osterweil and Ruga to overcome the perception that Fitlife is in the business of “diet” food. While simpler options like Supercharged Chicken — grilled chicken with sides of sweet potatoes and broccoli — are popular, some of Fitlife’s top-sellers are meals like the Tampa Bay BBQ Beef and Mac and Cheese, chicken enchiladas, and orange chicken.
The first words out of most customers’ mouths? “I didn’t think it was going to taste that good,” Osterweil and Ruga say, in perfect unison.
On the Fitlife menu, the two look to strike a balance between healthy meals that taste indulgent and meals that seem straighforward but take some work in the kitchen. Ruga works with a registered dietician to ensure each dish falls within specific calorie, fat, carb, protein, salt and sugar ranges, substituting healthier ingredients wherever possible (see: a zucchini-mushroom base for the chicken “pizza” supreme, or a flax- and pumpkin-seed cheesecake crust).
“There’s always a story with every dish,” Osterweil says. “Chef Ruga is really sneaking in some pretty dynamic ingredients into every dish.”
In its seven years of operation, Fitlife Foods has expanded to 10 locations around Tampa Bay, two in Orlando, one each in Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Plantation, plus delivery in Miami. Fitlife has also added a complimentary wellness-tracking program for customers called Project U to each of its stores. Having the culinary center near Central Florida allows Fitlife to supply locations across the state and potentially add on major Southern cities like Atlanta, Osterweil says. The company made the decision this year to focus heavily on its delivery business, temporarily sidelining announced plans to roll out franchising.
“We wanted to see what really took hold, and we saw that delivery was where the customer wanted us to be,” Osterweil says.
Though he isn’t ready to outline the details, Osterweil says 2019 will bring additional delivery through FedEx, plus what he’s calling Fitlife’s next leg of growth. “We feel like we’re really just touching the surface,” he says. “We’ve taken a very patient approach to growth. We really are trying to cultivate long-term relationships with our customers.”
One reason Fitlife has resonated with customers, chef Andrew Ruga says, is the company’s unwillingness to lean into trends. “We’re not fad-driven,” he adds. “With flavor and being a better choice for people being our core drivers, you’ll find items on our menu that are paleo-friendly, keto-friendly and dairy-friendly. We have options that fall within those parameters, but we don’t subscribe to being one way or the other.”
Instead, Osterweil says, Fitlife Foods is meant to be a solution to a common problem: how to eat well while leading a full, busy life.
“We’ve always said, just go eat the food and enjoy your life,” he says. “People will say, ‘Well, it’s a meal.’ Yeah, but it is legitimately solving something for somebody. If you continually and perpetually are solving that problem for people, then you are succeeding.”