The Drive-Thru Antidote: How America's Newest Restaurants Are Offering Up Healthy, Affordable Fast Food
Why the future of fast food may depend on the success of a funky little chef-owned restaurant.
For decades, "fast" in the restaurant world was largely the domain of Ronald McDonald and the Burger King. The food was cheap in price—two burgers for a buck!—and, as we would come to learn, equally skint when it came to nutrition. Thirty years ago, however, a national awareness of the high cost of this cheap food began to percolate (if slowly). In addition to the launch of this magazine, 1987 was also the year Congress proposed the Fast Food Ingredient Information Act. It died in Congress, but the seeds of a revolution had been planted.
Today, those seeds are sprouting: Health-conscious fast-food and fast-casual restaurants are on the fast track to places that would have seemed very unlikely to Reagan-era America.
In the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, two high-powered chefs have taken on fast food and fortified it with high-quality ingredients, swapping feedlot beef for patties with a pasture pedigree and incorporating other nutritional nuggets in hopes of showing an underprivileged community that a $4 cheeseburger need not be a passport to obesity.
"The problem is, in a lot of our communities, junk food is the real food and the real food is few and far between," says Roy Choi (@RidingShotgunLA), the LA food truck superstar who, along with his business partner Daniel Patterson (@dcpatterson), recently opened LocoL (@welocol), a fast-food outlet with a health-food mission. "Healthy means more than nutrition," adds Choi. "It means honest dialogue and taking action. Every little thing matters."
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The star of LocoL's menu is the Cheeseburg—an upgrade to the ubiquitous, traditional fast-food burger—which comes sandwiched in a golden-brown griddled bun that has a slightly tangy flavor due to long fermentation. The meaty, umami-rich patty is 70% Niman Ranch ground beef mixed with a 30% whole-grain mixture, including quinoa, that's been enhanced with chef-y staples such as fish sauce, seaweed, and tofu. The patty comes slicked with melted jack cheese, scallion relish, crunchy lettuce, and a spicy tomato concoction called Awesome Sauce. The menu includes other Burgs and Bowls, including turkey chili and a chopped salad.
LocoL's offerings check all of the fast-food boxes: cheap, filling, and craveable—but without the narcotic sodium, sugar, and fat bombs that spike blood sugar in the usual order. In other words, you don't walk away from LocoL in need of a nap.
The origin story of LocoL—a mash-up of the words "local" and "loco," which means "crazy" in Spanish— begins in 2013, some 5,590 miles from Watts, in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the MAD Symposium, the premier international culinary conference. Choi gave an emotional talk about poverty and hunger in Los Angeles and challenged some of the most influential chefs in the world to provide better food in inner cities. His talk inspired Patterson, the two-Michelin-starred Bay Area chef-owner of Coi and director of The Cooking Project, a nonprofit designed to make good food more accessible in San Francisco. Within a year, the duo had hatched the concept of the first-ever chef-owned and operated fast-food chain. They secured investment and recruited other culinary stars to sit on the board.
Choi and Patterson engineered a menu and breezy space designed to change the perceptions about what cheap, accessible food can look, feel, smell, taste, and sound like. (That sound? Buoyant '90s-era hip-hop.) They opened first in Watts, a veritable food desert where the median household income is $25,161, and hired from within the neighborhood in an attempt to revolutionize a notorious industry.
Since LocoL opened its screen doors in early 2016, Choi and Patterson have added a food truck (naturally, given Choi's four-wheeled Korean taco empire) and bakery commissary, and the team launched a second LocoL outpost in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland, California. The model: Sell affordable, nourishing food in neighborhoods where it can be the hardest to find. Eventually, scale up to enter more communities in need of local jobs and good fresh food.
Which would be a dream come true for Tamika Lang.
"I hope it's the future of fast food," says the 36-year-old Angeleno, who lunched with her husband, Yoshado Lang, over a Fried Chicken Burg and Chili on LocoL's sunny back patio. "Why would you want to go to McDonald's when you have this?"
Recently, The New York Times flew its chief restaurant critic Pete Wells out to Oakland to answer that question. He answered with a zero-star review of LocoL, comparing its menu to hospital food: "The most nutritious burger on earth won't help you if you don't want to eat it," Wells wrote.
The takedown sparked a passionate defense of LocoL as a social movement on the Times comments section. Choi didn't punch back. "The truth is that LocoL has hit a nerve," he shared with his followers on Instagram. "Doesn't mean all people love it, some hate it. But no one is indifferent by it."
LocoL may be just the tip of the iceberg. Fourteen miles north of LocoL sits Sqirl, a tiny, delicious, all-day restaurant with an outsize influence on how The New Healthy set eats today. Jessica Koslow (@SQIRLLA), Sqirl's chef-owner, spins a pantry of jams, sprouted whole grains, fermentations, and local produce into deceptively layered dishes like her iconic Sorrel Pesto Rice Bowl. Koslow, who is opening a new restaurant this summer, is a star of New California cooking in a city that has long been the beachhead for healthy food trends. She is also helping to push forward the new take on fast food: Last fall, trendy fast-casual salad outfit Sweetgreen, which had relocated its HQ from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, offered a limited-edition Sqirl Dinner Bowl punctuated with that sorrel pesto.
Other big-deal chefs are also embracing the trend. In Washington, D.C., Spanish-American chef José Andrés, a National Humanities Medal winner, launched the veg-focused fast-casual chain Beefsteak (named after the tomato). The startup recently hired a "chief of produce" to source seasonal, sustainably grown produce as the chain expands (it currently has five locations across D.C. and Philadelphia). And in New York City and Boston, the expansion-minded Dig Inn, a scratch cooking outfit, will open its 18th location soon. The chainlet's founders preach "mindful sourcing" from local farmers and a menu of mostly vegetables, with meat used for flavor rather than filler.
Of course, maturing chains like the Mediterranean-leaning Zoë's Kitchen (190 locations in 22 states), founded in 1995 in Birmingham, Alabama, helped pave the way for new kids on the block. Now, even traditional casual chains, such as The Cheesecake Factory, are acquiring minority stakes in healthy fast-casual brands to get in on the action.
The industry favors "better for you" over "healthy." Whatever you call it, what's driving the growth is a turning of the tide against mass-produced and processed food.
"What middle America appreciates is the fact that the food is made on the premises. You can tell the quality of the food by how it tastes," says Jason Morgan, managing partner of Hargett Hunter Capital Partners, a Raleigh, North Carolina–based firm that invests in fast-casual concepts like Original ChopShop Co., based in Arizona. "You feel better after you eat the food. You feel good because the food is clean, the food is fresh, it is made from whole ingredients."
Variety, from items like protein shakes, chopped salads, and bowls, bring people back multiple times a week, Morgan says: "There's nowhere else to get the food they're getting unless they're cooking it in their own house."
The shifting plate tectonics from upstarts like LocoL and Sweetgreen can be felt by the fast-food giants, who are retooling their own menus in order to catch up with consumer demand for all things fresh. In the past two years, McDonald's has announced it's eliminating high-fructose corn syrup from its buns, ending the use of certain antibiotics in its chickens, and switching to cage-free eggs by 2025. A dozen more brands, including Taco Bell and Starbucks, followed with their own pledges to use cage-free eggs.
Meanwhile, at LocoL, Choi defines progress in the long term: "Healthy food is getting back to reeducating ourselves and pressuring the corporations and the companies to stop infiltrating these empty calories [into] our communities," says Choi. "[We need] to really focus on our family structure. Life structure. Educational structure."