Is good fast food the next big thing?

Lyfe Kitchen

Photo by Paul Robert Lloyd via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I’ve finally gotten around to reading some of the recent “Food and Drink Issue” of The New York Times Magazine. I especially enjoyed Mark Bittman’s piece titled “Yes, Healthful Fast Food Is Possible. But Edible?” He writes,

Numbers are tricky to pin down for more healthful options because the fast food industry doesn’t yet have a category for “healthful.” The industry refers to McDonald’s and Burger King as “quick-serve restaurants”; Chipotle is “fast casual”; and restaurants where you order at the counter and the food is brought to you are sometimes called “premium fast casual.” Restaurants from these various sectors often deny these distinctions, but QSR, an industry trade magazine — “Limited-Service, Unlimited Possibilities” — spends a good deal of space dissecting them.

However, after decades of eating the stuff, I have my own. First, there are those places that serve junk, no matter what kind of veneer they present. Subway, Taco Bell (I may be partial to them, but really…), McDonald’s and their ilk make up the Junk Food sector. One step up are places with better ambience and perhaps better ingredients — Shake Shack, Five Guys, Starbucks, Pret a Manger — that also peddle unhealthful food but succeed in making diners feel better about eating it, either because it tastes better, is surrounded by some healthful options, the setting is groovier or they use some organic or sustainable ingredients. This is the Nouveau Junk sector.

Chipotle combines the best aspects of Nouveau Junk to create a new category that we might call Improved Fast Food. At Chipotle, the food is fresher and tastes much better than traditional fast food. The sourcing, production and cooking is generally of a higher level; and the overall experience is more pleasant. The guacamole really is made on premises, and the chicken (however tasteless) is cooked before your eyes. It’s fairly easy to eat vegan there, but those burritos can pack on the calories….

Chipotle no longer stands alone in the Improved Fast Food world: Chop’t, Maoz, Freshii, Zoës Kitchen and several others all have their strong points. And — like Chipotle — they all have their limitations, starting with calories and fat….

Despite its flaws, Improved Fast Food is the transitional step to a new category of fast-food restaurant whose practices should be even closer to sustainable and whose meals should be reasonably healthful and good-tasting and inexpensive. (Maybe not McDonald’s-inexpensive, but under $10.) This new category is, or will be, Good Fast Food, and there are already a few emerging contenders.

The essay is thoughtful and interesting (as usual with Bittman), so I encourage you to check it out here.

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