Fast food is deeply engrained in American culture. After all, nothing epitomises the ultimate all-American meal more than a hamburger with fries and a coke or a milkshake. Everyone in the USA eats fast food (a quarter of US adults eat it every single day) and one in eight adults in the USA has spent time working at a fast food restaurant at some point in his life. Fast food is easy, filling, convenient and inexpensive, making it a meal out that is accessible for everyone.
But cheap food comes at a price. Not only is fast food notoriously unhealthy, high in saturated fats, salts and sugars, it is also packed with highly-processed “mystery meats”, GMO products and pesticide-laden produce. In many ways, fast food embodies everything that is wrong with American food production.
Yet change is afoot. With Americans becoming increasingly mindful of making better choices, there is growing consumer demand not just for healthy food options but also for a move away from GMO towards certified organic ingredients. Indeed, consumer demand for organically produced goods continues to show double-digit growth in the US, and the restaurant sector has been quick to respond to this trend. The farm-to-table movement started by Alice Waters back in the 1970s has spread across mid- and upmarket restaurants nationwide and the fast-casual sector has seen an explosion in operators offering menus with a new emphasis on organic, locally sourced ingredients.
Even the quick-service sector is starting to change. A number of the big fast food players have committed to ridding their menus from artificial ingredients and moving towards “cleaner” foods, including Chipotle, Panera Bread, McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. However, when it comes to organic and locally sourced ingredients, the quick-service sector largely lags behind. After all, is it even possible to offer a classic fast food menu of burgers, fries and shakes, using all-natural, organic ingredients – and without having to charge exorbitant prices? Of course, it’s not an easy feat but there are a few fast food operators, who are starting a movement towards change. Here are three of them.
THE ORGANIC COUP
THE CONCEPT: The Organic Coup opened as the USA’s first certified organic fast food restaurant in Pleasanton, California, at the end of 2015. Offering a menu focused on fried chicken sandwiches, wraps and bowls, all of its ingredients are certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), a trade association and certifying agency accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program.
WHO’S BEHIND IT? Founder Erica Welton is a former food buyer, who worked for the Costco Wholesale Corporation for 14 years. Noticing a consumer shift towards organic ingredients in her job, as well as a lack of quick organic food options for her family on the go, she launched The Organic Coup with a view to offer an alternative to Chipotle.
WHAT’S ON THE MENU: The restaurant’s speciality is its spicy fried chicken made from Mary’s Organic Chicken, which is fried in organic coconut oil and served on a bun with a topping of spicy shredded vegetables. Customers can choose from mustard vinaigrette, spicy barbecue ranch, sesame ginger or ranch sauces. There are no fries on the menu and the only dessert option is organic popcorn drizzled with caramel and chocolate.
PRICE: The signature chicken sandwich is $8.99 (£6.90)
FUTURE PLANS: Welton last year raised $7m (£5.4m) in an initial round of financing led by Costco founder and former CEO Jim Sinegal. It currently operates nine outlets in California and has plans to open its first out of state location Seattle, Washington, in the autumn.
AMY’S DRIVE THRU
THE CONCEPT: Opened in the summer of 2015 in an old barn in Rohnert Park, California, Amy’s Drive Thru serves up a unique fast food dining experience, with a menu that is not just organic but also entirely meat-free. The food offer includes meatless burgers, hand-scooped ice cream shakes, single-serve pizzas, burritos and salads.
WHO’S BEHIND IT? The founders, Andy and Rachel Berliner, are also the founders of Amy’s Kitchen, one of the USA’s top brands of natural and organic convenience foods, with its range of frozen vegetarian dinners, which are sold in supermarkets like Whole Foods nationwide. Started in 1988, the company’s total turnover last year approached $480m (£370m) and it ranks in the top five of all US makers of frozen meals.
WHAT’S ON THE MENU: Everything on the menu is organic and vegetarian, with gluten-free and vegan options also available. The signature Amy burger comprises a double veggie patty, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and a secret sauce. There are also pizzas and mac’n’cheese dishes that are also available with dairy-free, vegan cheese.
PRICE: The signature Amy burger is $4.99 (£3.85)
FUTURE PLANS: At the moment there is only one Amy’s Drive Thru but although the Berliners insist they want to take it one restaurant at a time, they acknowledge that they designed the first drive-thru so that it could be replicated. Watch this space.
NIC’S ORGANIC FAST FOOD
THE CONCEPT: Opened in Rolling Meadows near Chicago in February this year, Nic’s offers a typical fast food experience made up of burgers, fries and sodas as well as a drive-thru and value meals. Its ingredients are organic and certified by Quality Assurance International (QAI), one of about 48 agencies in the U.S. accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to verify that organic standards are met.
WHO’S BEHIND IT? Founders Nicolette and Benjamin Brittsan have a fine-dining background and met at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Chicago. Benjamin previously owned a restaurant called Benjamin Tapas. The husband-and wife team started the operation out of a desire to have a quick and healthy option for their children.
WHAT’S ON THE MENU: The signature Organic BigNic Bacon Burger features two grass-fed beef patties, American cheese, Applewood-smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles on a toasted bun — with each ingredient organic, down to the mayonnaise and mustard.
PRICE: A combo meal (double cheeseburger, medium drink and fries) is $8.25 (£6.35)
FUTURE PLANS: The couple is already working on a second location in Illinois, and plans to bring the brand next to the West Coast, with openings in California and Washington State. They hope to open about 50 restaurants over the next three years, mostly company owned, with the help of an unnamed angel investor, and want to franchise within about two years.