the fastest-growing fast-food chains aren’t slinging
artery-clogging cheeseburgers or cooking up calorie-packed
diners can order Brussels sprouts salads and kale smoothies,
served with the same speed as Burger King.
interest in locally sourced and healthy foods has spurred a
boom in farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants and has
expanded organic produce at the supermarket. Now, a number of
upstart chains trying to tap that interest are taking aim at
traditional fast food by moving leafy greens and fruits to the
center of the plate.
rapidly expanding restaurants want to revolutionize the
fast-food industry, bringing healthy fare to the masses who
typically don’t shop at Whole Foods. At the same time, they
are stealing customers from stalwarts such as McDonald’s.
chains, several based in California, see a juicy opportunity
in the Golden State, with its bounty of health-obsessed diners
interested in the latest food fads.
chains make up just a tiny fraction of the $200-billion
fast-food industry in the United States. But analysts predict
this sector will boom as health-conscious consumers ditch the
burger and fries in favor of quickly prepared healthy meals.
most bankable word in food service is fresh," said
restaurant consultant Aaron Allen.
rethinking the fast-food experience beyond food. At some, you’ll
find real china replacing paper dishes and foam cups for
in-house eating. There are cushy chairs and communal tables,
not plastic ones that are nailed down. Several offer beers
from local breweries and menus that change with the seasons.
want to eat more vegetables that are nutritious and
unprocessed," said Greg Dollarhyde, chief executive of
Santa Monica, Calif.-based chain Veggie Grill. "The big
trend now is make it better for me, but I don’t want to give
any flavors up."
these restaurants cater to salad skeptics or meat lovers who
shy away from anything green or overly healthy.
don’t like saying the H word because that’s going to turn
people off," said Mike Donahue, co-founder of Lyfe
Kitchen, which has expanded to 13 locations since opening its
first restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif.,. in 2011. "I tell
our people they have got to start every message with, ‘Tastes
great, tastes great, tastes great. And oh, by the way, it is
good for you.’"
Kitchen serves burgers with grass-fed beef and decadent
chocolate desserts, all under 600 calories. Donahue said the
company avoids pushing the uber-healthy aspects of its dishes
— focusing on the tastiness of its kale banana smoothies,
for instance, instead of highlighting the kale.
Veggie Grill, which offers only vegetarian food, sells
meatless cheeseburgers and chicken wings to entice
"recovering carnivores," Dollarhyde said.
popularity of chains that offer quick yet healthy meals is
driven by millennials who grew up watching the Food Network
and aging baby boomers who want to maintain their health.
consumers eat out a lot, and they don’t want to feel bad
about their choices every day," said Kelly Weikel, senior
consumer research manager at Technomic Inc., a food industry
consulting firm. "Eating healthy is also appealing for
boomers. When they eat out, they go for a little bit healthier
because they are trying to preserve their vitality."
Paterson, 29, said she avoids traditional fast-food joints and
used to depend on sushi and the salad bar at Whole Foods for
quick meals. The corporate advisor said she dines at least
once a week at chains such as Simply Salad or Tender Greens.
like getting something tasty and not greasy and horrible for
you," Paterson said. "You can also sit down because
it’s an actual restaurant."
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of the healthy chain founders did time at conventional
eateries. Donahue of Lyfe Kitchen logged two decades at
McDonald’s. The three founders of Tender Greens met while
working at the luxurious Shutters on the Beach in Santa
Monica, where two served as chefs.
wanted to find a balance between the very expensive but very
good restaurant world we spent our careers in, and the
mom-and-pop cheap eats that we could afford but weren’t
really in line with our lifestyle," said Erik Oberholtzer,
chief executive of Tender Greens.
McDonald’s and other chains have been trying to increase
their healthy offerings, many of their menu items remain laden
with calories, saturated fat and sodium.
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example, the popular McDonald’s double cheeseburger weighs
in at 430 calories, 10 grams of saturated fat and 1,040
milligrams of sodium. A small order of fries adds 230
calories, 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 130 milligrams of
Kitchen sells a grass-fed beef burger with 544 calories, 8
grams of saturated fat and 635 milligrams of sodium. But those
watching their figures can opt for the marinated kale at a
svelte 68 calories, 1 gram of fat and 74 milligrams of sodium.
The quinoa crunch bowl contains 552 calories, 3 grams of
saturated fat and 551 milligrams of sodium.
another difference. The double cheeseburger is a stalwart on
McDonald’s Dollar Menu; nothing is that cheap at the chains
that promote themselves as health centered.
ingredients can pose a challenge for these chains, which need
to find reliable suppliers while quickly expanding.
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Greens operates 17 locations, all in California. It so far has
partnered with a farm for most of its produce.
an eye toward eventually expanding outside the Golden State,
the Culver City chain plans to experiment with modern farming
techniques that will enable it to grow food in indoor spaces
such as abandoned industrial buildings.
will allow us to not only scale up but also to scale our
produce, take it on the road, and bring the farm with
us," Oberholtzer said.
quick health-food spots are finding strong demand for not only
finer ingredients but also extra dining frills that add to the
Kitchen, which plans to open up to 20 locations next year,
waiters deliver meals; diners order at the counter and then
are handed a GPS device so they can be easily located inside
the restaurant. Food is served on real china with flatware and
which is opening in West Hollywood and Santa Monica next year,
has branched outside of restaurants by throwing an annual
music and food festival called SweetLife.
Nathaniel Ru said Washington, D.C.-based Sweetgreen is working
to improve its app so customers can order food as well as pay
for meals on their mobile devices. Frequent app users are
invited to enjoy perks such as special dinners and festival
entrepreneurs behind healthy fast food say they are confident
that diners will be eager to pay slightly more for good meals
that are easy on the arteries.
you saw in the past with fast food was all convenience,"
said Cameron Lewis, co-founder of Simply Salad. "Now we
can make healthy, good-quality food in the same time as your
typical fast-food experience."
partner Bruce Teichman opened their first Simply Salad in 2010
after emptying out their savings accounts. In August, their
third location opened in Santa Monica.
plan to add five restaurants in the LA area in the next two
years and then take on the rest of the state and beyond. The
restaurants have thrived, especially with diners who want to
get in and out in less than 30 minutes without downing a
burrito or burger.
you want to go to McDonald’s or Burger King, obviously feel
free," Teichman said. "But you get what you pay