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FAST FOOD PARADIGM SHIFT

Chipotle, South St. Burger Co. and Mendocino Farms are carving a path with real food.



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We don’t usually think of quality when we think of fast food, but that is changing. Fast food is moving away from frozen, low-grade, mass processed, and cheap “product” to fresh, local, organic, naturally raised, and hormone & antibiotic-free food.

“People are pickier about what they eat these days” says Jay Gould, President of South St. Burger Co., a Toronto based burger bar chain that grills up fresh, naturally raised, hormone & antibiotic-free burgers. Books, television shows and films such as Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Food, Inc. have exposed the dark realities behind mega-corporate manufactured food products and the ill effects their production has on livestock, agriculture, employees and the public. As a result, there is a transformation to real food from local sources.

Brands such as Chipotle, South St. Burger Co., and Mendocino Farms are delivering real food that is fast. Great food starts with the best ingredients you can get your hands on. When I cook to impress, I look for the best ingredients I can get. It’s not cheap, but it tastes better. So when I go out to eat, I look for a restaurant that wants to impress me…whether I want a four-hour fine dining experience or a ten-minute fast food indulgence.

“Food With Integrity”

Chipotle Mexican Grill is a leader in this fast food paradigm shift. It has been around since 1994 when founder and classically trained chef Steve Ells started serving up big, tasty and fresh burritos and tacos out of a converted ice cream parlor in Denver, Colorado. Chipotle is the benchmark brand having over 900+ restaurants in the United States, Toronto, London and soon Paris and Fankfurt. They use the finest, freshest, all natural and local ingredients. I can confirm this because I used to work at Chipotle’s first international restaurant in Toronto.

The food we cooked was outstanding for the extremely high volume of output. Chicken and beef come in fresh several times a week from Berretta farms, a local farm in Ontario, Canada that is known for high quality, naturally raised, hormone & antibiotic free meats. The pork comes pre-cooked from a farm in Quebec and it’s delicious too. Fresh produce and fruit are also delivered several times a week. Guacamole, salsas and dressings are made fresh several times a day and lettuce is cut for salads, burritos and tacos while cheese is shredded daily. You never get any leftover cooked food at Chipotle.

Chipotle has one location that serves up breakfast burritos at Washington Dulles International airport. They are also experimenting with introducing chorizo (Mexican sausage) and soup on the menu. In Paris, they will serve wine and have additional meats such as goat. However, you won’t see them deviate too much from the core menu because people crave the chipotle flavor. Although these ingredients come at a cost, Chipotle has proven that people want quality food even if they have to pay more for it. They have paved the way for other brands in the fast food sandwich segment (yes, a burrito is considered a sandwich) to take the leap away from serving cheap, low quality product to real food.

“Be the Right Choice”
What is Jay’s favorite burger from his South St. Burger Co.? It’s a large beef patty with curry mayo, Dijon horseradish, tomatoes, ketchup and Swiss cheese. Those are just some of the more than 25 gourmet toppings you can choose to put on a fresh, naturally raised, hormone & antibiotic-free burger patty.

Jay Gould, the entrepreneur behind New York Fries, started South St. Burger Co., with one location in Toronto in 2005. Although Jay may already be the Lord of Fries (with over 185 New York Fries shops in Canada, Korea, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong) he may soon become The Fresh Prince of Real Burgers because of his quest to make the best burger possible.

Burgers and fries are a classic combination. Since New York Fries (is known for having delicious fries, not just any burger would do. Instead of adding a burger to the New York Fries brand, Jay created a new restaurant and took time to create the food. He and his team visited successful Mom & Pop burger bars in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles before experimenting with ground beefs, buns and toppings.

South St. also has taken cues from Chipotle. The style in which one orders, the hip atmosphere, using naturally raised and local ingredients, making food in front of the customer, and eco friendly initiatives to name a few.

The end result of Jay’s research was a patty made from naturally raised, hormone & antibiotic-free beef from Rowe farms in Ontario, Canada. There are some frozen inputs imported from New Zealand; however, the patties are formed fresh in Toronto. Why New Zealand? According to Jay, New Zealand has more sophisticated processing technology than Canada and the United States. This makes for a better tasting burger.

It’s one of the most delicious burgers I have ever tasted from a fast food restaurant. The burger comes with your choice of a whole wheat or white fresh baked bun that is delivered fresh daily. Cheese (goat, Swiss, cheddar, pepper jack and soon blue cheese) and bacon cost extra. French fries from New York Fries, poutine, fresh onion rings (which are delicious too) and real milk shakes can accompany your burger.

What I really respect about Jay Gould and his South St. Burger Co. and New York Fries brands is that they’re “not trying to be total health food, they’re trying to be real food!” South St. Burger Co. has 12 locations, with a new location coming to the Shops at Don Mills in Toronto in the summer of 2010. They expect to expand to over 100 locations in Canada. The future of fresh and tasty burgers in Canada looks bright!

“Seasonal and Local”

Mendocino Farms, a gourmet sandwich restaurant with 3 locations in Los Angeles, is priming itself to be a national brand. The brand boasts that “sophisticated wine country-inspired ingredients composed with a fine dining approach to flavor pairing make Mendocino Farms the premier eco-artisan sandwich concept.” The idea is to reconstruct a fine dining experience within a sandwich. It’s a good idea. There is a need for a better sandwich than Subway and Quiznos on a national level.

Although a great concept, the execution is problematic. I wasn’t impressed after actually tasting a few of their sandwiches. The menu is rather large and confusing, making it difficult to choose the “right sandwich.” Also the way you order is a bit silly. Girls greet/hold you at the front door and make you line up creating the illusion that the store is busier than it is. They take your order and then hand it to you before you walk in the store. Then you hand it off to a guy behind the counter and wait until your name is called. Once your name is called you go to the cashier who gives you your food after you pay for it. They need to streamline this process if they want to be more than just a regional chain.

In my mind, if a sandwich isn’t fantastic then why bother putting it on the menu? I sampled the Blue Buffalo Chicken sandwich and the Caprese sandwich. Both were pretty boring. In fact, the most exciting thing about the Mendocino Farms experience was the Boylan’s soda fountain that dispenses several different flavors of sugar cane gourmet soda. It was exciting to see a gourmet soda fountain; however, I think I went into hyperglycemic shock after tasting their root beer.

My review won’t matter. Mendocino Farms has great marketing and their food is real! They will be successful because there isn’t anything challenging them in the gourmet sandwich segment. When Quiznos first came out, it was a better option than Subway for a sandwich, but have you tasted a sandwich from Quiznos lately? It’s sub-par at best.

“That’s What a Hamburger is All About”

Fresh, made to order, fast food is not a novel concept. In N’ Out has been serving fresh, made to order burgers and hand-cut French fries in California, Nevada and Arizona since 1948 (that’s longer than McDonalds). Their menu is simple and their food tastes delicious.

Chipotle is based on In N’ Out’s model. In N’ Out has a very simple menu with fresh ingredients. Crew members must become masters at every station before being considered for a management position. In N’ Out and Chipotle keep their operations simple, clean, consistent and they use fresh food.

“Eat Well!”

The Chipotles of the world didn’t exist when I was growing up. McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, and KFC dominated fast food. And although Chipotle, South St. Burger Co. and Mendocino Farms are innovators, Jay Gould believes it’s the “big burger companies that we should look to for future trends.” McDonalds may not serve real food, but they serve value and have deep pockets to market “healthier” food items on their menus. While Jay might be right, I still hope people make informed choices and don't get fooled by marketing alone. Although a real meal will likely always cost a bit more than ultra-processed crap, at least you can now get fresh fast (so the savings on time is diminishing). Plus, a few dollars more in the short term may lead to greater savings in the long run. After all, you get what you pay for... and you are what you eat.




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