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Published Thursday, November 19, 2015

Chai Alive: Feeding the Vitality of the World

By Amy Forman

Heidi Feinstein at Life Alive in Salem

One in a series of articles on Women in Business

Though the season of costumed Halloween visitors in Salem may be over, Heidi Feinstein, owner of the Life Alive restaurant chain, is still on a mission to wake what she sees as the living dead, one meal at a time.

“As a therapist, I became aware that there are too many of us living lives overwhelmed, numb, armored or disassociated, and that is not living a life fully alive,” said Feinstein. “I want to help people wake up and feel… to become more connected, engaged, empowered and awake to the wonderful possibility and potential within us and around us. When I first came up with my concept, I knew I’d be toasting wheatgrass shots with ‘L’Chaim’ so I initially named the restaurant Chai Alive, which ultimately became Life Alive.”

A trained healer, Feinstein believes that healthy, delicious, comfort food is the most pleasure-filled way for people to discover their own natural vitality and renew their connection to life. The Salem restaurant is Feinstein’s third; she also has one in Lowell and another in Cambridge. With another Cambridge location scheduled to open soon, she continues to awaken the senses of happy guests, over 2,000 a day.

“I have always been attracted to holism,” said Feinstein, 44, a Marblehead native, explaining the concept that everything is connected. After graduating from George Washington University with a degree in Eastern Religions, Feinstein moved to New York City, where she worked as a political activist for women’s health, and then studied holistic health in Montreal, including nutrition, Chinese medicine, body work and spiritual psychotherapy. She became a naturopath (a form of alternative medicine employing a wide array of natural modalities) in Canada, but returned to the U.S., obtaining a masters degree from Lesley University for expressive arts therapy (using non-verbal modalities to engage the creative imagination to deepen the healing process) in order to become licensed in the U.S. After graduation, she worked in hospitals and had a private practice, but felt the tug to be entrepreneurial.

“I had a need to create a space that was my own to inspire people to awaken to their personal potential,” she said. As she began to eat more healthfully, food turned out to be what inspired her. One dish – a warm bowl of beets, carrots kale, broccoli, tofu and brown rice – was inspired by her best friend, Elizabeth Stahl, and became a staple. “It was what I ate for a year, and what became the Goddess dish, named after Elizabeth. Everyone around me was constantly asking for it… and being Jewish, food is how people come together and celebrate life. Food makes people feel safe, comfortable and connected to themselves, their bodies and the world around them. What a powerful tool to use, and what a powerful tool to meet my personal goals.”

The “Adventurer” bowl at Life Alive

Over a three-year period beginning in 2000, Feinstein created a business plan around the concept of a café. After applying for a loan and being denied three times, she finally succeeded in securing a loan and opened her first restaurant in the burgeoning arts district in Lowell in 2004. Her menu of organic bowls, wraps, salads, smoothies, juices, teas and coffees attracted a strong following from the start.

“People were coming from two hours away regularly, and people were begging me to open additional locations,” Feinstein said. With lines out the door and the business growing by 40 percent a year, she expanded to Cambridge in 2010, and to Salem in 2012.

“I think we are so successful because we are not preaching any one diet here,” said Feinstein, who is an omnivore. “We serve simple comfort food that is delicious and satisfying. A large majority of our guests are not vegetarians.”

Feinstein describes the menu as therapeutic. One of the most popular drinks is the “Love Alive” (berries, banana, dates, chia and almond milk), and the restaurants are known for their sauces and warm bowls. Nearly half the guests order take-out in compostable and recyclable containers.

People write to her about how the place has changed their lives. “We help people who are going through cancer, chronic illnesses, depression, obesity. Food is very connected to health… I want guests to leave the urban busyness of life, be nurtured and take that desire for more self-care home with them,” she said.

Feinstein’s own busy life involves raising six-year-old daughter Lila with husband Keith Wasserman, while balancing the demands of the restaurant business. Beyond opening a new restaurant with a different design in Cambridge soon, she has big plans and has just gotten the financing to work toward her goals. “We plan to expand across the country and in a non-corporate manner that keeps our integrity and celebrates the spirit of each community that we are in,” she said. “Our mission is on every wall. We don’t do a single thing without thinking of our mission. We will feed the vitality of the world!”

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