I had been thinking during a recent week of traveling of those Taco Bell stops. I had ascertained, as a means of avoiding the pitfalls of airport food, to be vegan for the length of the excursion. This isn’t difficult. By the time that I got at Dallas/Fort Worth to Terminal C, I could not tolerate another Veggie Delite from Subway, a bad chopped salad on poor bread. So I wandered up to the Taco Bell Express and asked the cashier if I really could get a bean burrito without cheese or sour cream. He pointed out a corner on the overhead display where the “fresco” menu offered pico de gallo in place of dairy, then upsold me on a multilayered “fresco” bean burrito for about 3 bucks. The customers to my right, as he was discussing and left, both fit, suit-wearing individuals bearing manifestations of resignation and hunger, perked up. They were not conscious of the fresco menu. It wasn’t good, either.
We’ve gone in the whistleblowing period to the higher-anticipations stage, and a few of the expectations are being met. In-N-Out Burger has demonstrated that you do not have to underpay your workers to be lucrative. There are dozens of plant-based alternatives with more on the way; increasingly, they are pretty good.
The fulfillment of the expectations has led to higher ones. My expertise in the airport just confirmed what I Had been hearing from analysts in the fast food sector for decades. After the success of businesses like Whole Foods, and healthful (or theoretically beneficial) brands like Annie’s and Kashi, there’s now a market for a fast-food chain that’s not just healthy itself, but vegetarian-friendly, sustainable as well as humane. And, this being fast food: cheap. “It is vital, and that I do consider it’s coming from consumer desire to have choices and more equilibrium,” says Andy Barish, a restaurant analyst at Jefferies LLC, the investment bank. “And it is not just the coasts anymore.”
I’m not talking about token gestures, like McDonald’s fruitandyogurt parfait, whose calories tend to be more than 50 percent sugar. And I do not anticipate the prices to match those of Taco Bell or McDonald’s, where economies of scale and inexpensive ingredients make meals dirt cheap. It’s a spot where something like a black bean burger stacked with vegetables and baked sweet potato fries — and, hell, maybe even a vegan shake — is less than 10 dollars and 800 calories (and way fewer without the shake). If I possibly could purchase and eat that in 15 minutes, I’d be joyful, and that I believe a lot of others would be, also. My recipes can try to get a quick, low-calorie burger, french fries and shake.
In the last few years, the fast-food industry has begun to heed these new demands. Billions of dollars have been invested in more healthful fast-food options, and these costs are justified by the financial incentives. About half of all of the cash spent on food in the United States is for meals eaten outside your home. And last year McDonald’s made $5.5 billion in profits on $88 billion in sales. If a healthy alternative that has been in a position to gain just a single percentage of the market share was offered by a competition, it might make $55 million. The best rookie of the past generation, chipotle, has surpassed that 1 percent handily. Revenues approached $3 billion last year. Over precisely the same period in the past year, they grew by 17 percent in the fourth quarter.
Amounts are tricky to pin down for more healthy options since the fast food industry doesn’t yet have a class for “healthful.” The industry refers to McDonald’s and Burger King as “swift-serve restaurants”; Chipotle is “fast casual”; and eateries where you order at the counter and also the food is brought to you happen to be occasionally called “premium fast casual.” Restaurants from these various sectors regularly refuse these differentiations, but QSR, an industry trade magazine — “Limited Service, Unlimited Possibilities” — spends a great deal of space dissecting them.
However, after decades of eating the things, I ‘ve my own. First, there are those places that serve rubbish, regardless of what type of veneer they present. This can be the Nouveau Crap sector.
Chipotle combines the most effective facets of Nouveau Junk to develop a brand new class that people might call Improved Fast Food. At Chipotle, the food is fresher and tastes much much better than conventional fast food. Cooking, production and the sourcing is usually of an increased level; along with the overall experience is more enjoyable. The guacamole actually is made on premises, and the chicken (nevertheless tasteless) is cooked before your eyes. Those burritos can pack on the calories, although it is fairly easy to eat vegan there. It is not shabby for assembly line steam-table food that is Mexican. (It is.)
Chipotle no more stands alone in the Improved Fast Food world: Chop’t, Maoz, Freshii, Zoes Kitchen and several others all have their strong points. And — like Chipotle — they all have their limits, beginning with calories and fat. By offering fried chicken and fried onions in addition to organic tofu, Chop’t, a salad chain in Ny and Washington, tempts customers to turn what might happen to be a healthful meal right into a calorie bomb (to say nothing of the tasteless dressing), and often increases the cost to $12 or more. The Netherlands-based Maoz isn’t good, but it’s not as good as the mom-and-pop stores and falafel trucks that are all over Manhattan. There are hardly any choices, nothing is cooked to order, the pita is a sponge and there is a sloppy -yourself setup which makes a $10 meal look like a small rip-off.
Despite its flaws, Improved Fast Food is the transitional measure to a brand new kind of fast-food restaurant whose practices should be closer to sustainable and whose meals must be great and pretty beneficial -tasting and inexpensive. (Maybe not McDonald’s-affordable, but under $10.) This new type will be, or is, Good Fast Food, and there already are several emerging contenders.
Veggie Grill is a six-year-old Los Angeles-based chain with 18 places. Technically, it falls into the “premium fast casual” category. The restaurants are cheerfully designed and nicely lighted and offer limited service. Though you might not know it at first the food is only vegan.
Kevin Boylan and T. K. Pillan, the chain’s founders, are vegans themselves. They frequently refer to their own food as “recognizable” and “American,” but that is debatable. The “chickin” in the “Santa Fe Crispy Chickin” sandwich is Gardein, a soy-based product that’s become the default for fast food operators trying to find meat substitutes. Although there are better products in the pipeline, Gardein, particularly when fried, tastes more or less like a McNugget (which isn’t entirely “real” chicken itself). The “cheese” is Daiya, which is tapioca-based and similar in flavor to your pasteurized processed American cheese. The “steak,” “carne asada,” “crab cake” (my favorite) and “hamburger” are also soy, in combination with wheat and pea protein. In terms of environmental damage, animal welfare and resource usage, these items are enormous steps in the right path. They save land, water, energy and animals.
Boylan desired to make clear to me that his chain is not about haute cuisine. “We are not doing sauteed tempeh with a peach reduction da-da-da,” he said. “That can be a terrific menu item, but most people do not know what it is. When we say ‘cheeseburger’ — or ‘fried chickin’ with mashed potatoes with gravy and steamed kale — everyone understands what we’re talking about.” He’s likely correct, and the vegetables are very good, too. The mashed potatoes are cut with 40 percent cauliflower; also you can get your entree on a bed of kale instead of a bun and the gravy is made from porcini mushrooms.
After I first entered a Veggie Grill, I anticipated a room full of skeletal vegans -ness. At locations in Hollywood, El Segundo and Westwood, the lines could have been everywhere, even an airport Taco Bell. The diners certainly looked like omnivores, that they largely are, and seemed combined by class and weight. The company’s research shows that about 70 percent of its customers eat fish or meat, a fact that seems both reflected in its menu and its immediate success. Veggie Grill won finest American restaurant in the 2012 Los Angeles Times readers’ survey, and sales are up 16 percent in existing shops compared with last year. The program is to double those 18 locations every 18 months for the foreseeable future — “quickly enough to stay ahead of rivals, although not too fast as to lose our cultural DNA,” Boylan said. In 2011, the creators brought in a new C.E.O., Greg Dollarhyde, who helped Baja Fresh become a national chain before its sale to Wendy’s for almost $300 million.
Veggie Grill is being underwritten partially by Brentwood Associates, a small-scale private-equity firm that is invested in various consumer companies Kitchen, a chain that provides kebabs, braised beans and roasted vegetables. “For a firm like us to join up using a concept like Veggie Grill, we need to believe it is a lucrative business model, and we do,” Brentwood’s managing director, Rahul Aggarwal, told me. “Ten years past I would’ve said no vegan restaurant will be successful, but individuals are searching for different methods to eat and this really is a fantastic concept.”
I admire Veggie Grill, but while making “chickin” from soy is not any crime, it’s still far from real food. I possess a long-running debate with dedicated vegan buddies, who say that Americans aren’t ready for rice and beans, or chickpea-and-spinach stew, and that places like Veggie Grill offer a transition to creature-and-environment- more friendly food. On a single level, I concur. Why feed the grain to tortured animals to produce bad meat when you’re able to process the grain and produce it into “meat”? On another level, the aim must be fast food that’s real food, too.