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Thursday, February 22, 2024

A New ‘LYFE’

Zero-carb pizza crusts are just the foundation for this business venture

A diabetes diagnosis in 2006 hit Mohamed Aly hard. The self-described “foodie” mourned the tastes he thought he could no longer enjoy, with pizza topping the list.

Photo of Mohamed Aly provided by ZeroCarb LYFE

Eventually, though, Aly turned sadness into action. Using no-carbohydrate ingredients, he took a stab at creating pizza he and other diabetics could safely eat and something that, as he explains, “didn’t taste like cardboard.”

Mission accomplished. Today, ZeroCarb LYFE is a burgeoning national business, based in Evansville, that surpassed $2 million in sales in 2022, with an eye toward expanding beyond pizza to other tasty, healthy items.

It didn’t happen overnight.

Initially teamed with his business partner cousin, Aly concocted multiple iterations of pizzas, tweaking the recipe a little each time. Finally satisfied with the result, in 2012 Aly quit his job as an accountant and opened a pizza restaurant in Chicago, Illinois, selling the no-carb, no-sugar pizza crust.

The magic crust formula comes from four ingredients: chicken breast, olive oil, salt, and a spice blend. No flour. No eggs. No butter. No cheese. “It was really thick (at first),” Aly says. “When I eat (pizza), I don’t want the chicken flavor to impact the taste of it. I wanted to get the experience of eating a pizza. I worked on it until I got a very good version, holding the slice, and the chicken is not overwhelming the taste.”

The high-protein product, Aly felt, struck the right balance of being healthier than traditional pizza crust, yet tastier than other carb-free, gluten-free varieties. Diners agreed. His Chicago restaurant quickly built a fan base.

But there were more bumps in the road to Aly’s dream. Aly, who immigrated to the United States from Egypt in 2001, lost several family members in a short timeframe. He dealt with bouts of grief and depression, negatively impacting his health. Ultimately, Aly closed the restaurant in 2013 and traveled to Egypt to be with his family and support them.

Photo of Mohamed Aly and Omar Atia provided by ZeroCarb LYFE

In 2018, Aly refocused on his own keto diet and connected with an additional business partner, Omar Atia. Atia had worked in research and development for major food distributors such as Kraft Foods, Conagra Brands, and Procter & Gamble, and was supporting business startups at the time through his ThoughtFire consulting business.

Atia, the team he rallied around him, and Aly hatched a plan to get Aly’s pizza into the hands of more health-conscious food lovers. Aly officially relocated to Evansville in 2020 when ZeroCarb LYFE initially launched its business.

“We were working with startups at the time, and I had a clear version for how to translate the amazing idea Mohamed had come up with into a viable business,” Atia says.

Aly’s crusts were packaged with the name ZeroCarb LYFE. It launched in June 2020 at three Evansville-area Azzip Pizza locations and quickly expanded to all 10 locations because of its success. Diners found the same taste and enjoyment that diners at Aly’s Chicago restaurant did.

The company then expanded into ready-made, frozen pizzas and launched into retail grocery chains in April 2022, starting with Schnucks.

The ZeroCarb LYFE crust and frozen pizzas now are available in more than 250 restaurant locations across the U.S. The company delivers straight to customers’ doors across 48 states through online sales and via the retail channel.

Photo provided by ZeroCarb LYFE

Each approximately eight-inch crust has 37 grams of protein and is free of carbs, gluten, dairy, and sugars.

“When people go to Schnucks to a sampling kiosk, they’ll say, no way, this can’t be chicken,” Atia says. “It folds and crunches like a typical thin crust.”

Kipplee’s, another Evansville pizza restaurant, recently added it to its menu.

ZeroCarb LYFE’s grocery reach now includes 80 stores in the St. Louis, Missouri-based Schnucks chain, and in April it is launching with 385 locations of Sprouts Farmers Market, a chain based in Phoenix, Arizona. Meetings are planned with other grocery companies, Atia and Aly say.

Direct-to-customer sales offered online are growing the company even more. They allow the purchase of packages of pizzas (either beef and cheese or buffalo chicken) as well as plain crusts.

Photo provided by ZeroCarb LYFE

A 15-person team manages ZeroCarb LYFE operations from the company’s headquarters at 318 Main St. in Downtown Evansville and manufactures its products out of a facility in Elkhart County, Indiana. That’s where the crusts and readymade pizzas are shipped to retail and restaurant locations.

ZeroCarb LYFE is an Evansville success story that makes local business leaders proud.

“It’s a great innovation, and it fits right in with the health and wellness lifestyle we’re so supportive of,” says Tara Barney, Evansville Regional Economic Partnership’s CEO. “It shows entrepreneurial efforts can come together in our community. And it tastes good! The fact that it’s carb-free and gluten-free really makes it a home run. We’re really interested in how they can continue to build their brand and model.”

Those next steps, according to Atia and Aly, involve branching out into a line of snack chips, launching in the first quarter of 2023, and eventually adding items such as taco shells, pasta, and breadcrumbs.

Atia, who is from the Evansville area but now lives in Fishers, Indiana, co-founded Thoughtfire, a consulting firm for businesses. Atia was convinced Aly had a great business concept, and it could reach new heights with the right plan.

“People are used to something that is healthy but sacrificing the taste,” Atia says. “You’re having to convince yourself psychologically that it’s good for me. But the reaction to this has been that people are just shocked that this isn’t a carbloaded product.”

Aly says it goes back to his vision for the product in Chicago more than a decade ago — that taste would drive its success. A graduate of Cairo University in Egypt with a degree in accounting, he says the mission of ZeroCarb LYFE today is still the same: producing foods that are healthy, tasty, and filling.

“You get the same experience (as more traditional varieties), and it’s very nutritious to your body,” Aly says.

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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