Those lucky Californians. They have In-N-Out Burger, the 185-restaurant chain that's been around since 1948 and has attained near-cult status for cooked-to-order burgers and fresh-cut french fries. And they've got Topz, the company with the guilt-free selection of lean burgers, baked "fries," and real-fruit shakes. So what's been on the menu in the rest of the country? Envy. There just haven't been fast-food chains offering much beyond the standard-issue fare.
Until now. Suddenly, a new generation of quick-service restaurants, as they're known in the industry, has taken root on the East Coast. From O'Naturals in New England to Evos in Florida, these renegades are out to offer healthier (if not faster) versions of America's favorite on-the-go meals. While still tiny (New York-based Better Burger has three locations, compared with the more than 5,800 Wendy's outlets in the United States alone), the new companies are drawing up franchise plans, inking real estate deals—and dreaming about taking on the majors.
The timing might just be right; after all, this is the post-Super Size Me era. But how's the grub at these new joints? To find out, my husband, Steve, and I and our kids, Hannah, 11, and Daniel, 7, visited five new counter-service chains. We sipped, slurped, munched—and jotted down our findings. Here, the family field report:
This soulful chain, brought to you by the folks who produce Stonyfield Farm yogurt, wears its politics on its sleeve—and on its walls (THESE PANELS ARE CONSTRUCTED FROM POST-HARVEST WHEAT CHAFF, announces a little plaque), its floors (WE ARE A TEST SITE FOR ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY CLEANERS), and its tables (that's organic ketchup in the squeeze bottles). There's a friendly, join-the-community feel to the place, which has a sofa to curl up on, a bookcase with on-message reading matter (Babar's Yoga for Elephants, Natural Capitalism), and world music quietly playing over the sound system. SITE VISIT 100 Market St., Portsmouth, New Hampshire. BURGER/FRIES EQUIVALENT Flatbread sandwiches (chicken, wild Alaskan salmon, or beef raised without antibiotics or growth hormones), $5.75-$6.75. Also soups, salads, and Asian noodles. KIDS' MENU Macaroni and cheese, baked chicken nuggets, "tortilla dog," or melted cheese flatbread—all with carrot sticks and ranch dressing, plus an eight-ounce cup of O'Naturals fountain soda or a half pint of organic milk, $4. FUN FACTOR A play area has a wooden dollhouse and a toy railroad. WHAT'S FOR DESSERT? Oatmeal cherry cookies and Rice Krispies-style treats. DANIEL SAYS "Can I have another hot dog?" BOTTOM LINE Some families will find the whole scene a bit too earnest, but the food is good and the place welcomes kids with open arms. If you're the sort of parent who doesn't want your kids clamoring for Coke or Sprite, this chain's for you.
Four restaurants (two in Maine, one in New Hampshire, one in Massachusetts), with more planned for the Greater Boston area (www.onaturals.com).
This seven-year-old chain, a division of a Massachusetts company that also owns the Boston-area Souper Salad spots, gets points for being right where travelers need it. You'll find Fresh City at Bradley InternationalAirport in Hartford, Connecticut, and at five rest stops on the Massachusetts Turnpike, alongside McDonald's (which, in fact, runsthese Fresh City food-court operations). The around-the-world menu ranges from Mexican burritos to Thai noodles, but despite Fresh City's name and its farmer logo, the food had the most processed, homogenized quality of all the new chains we tried. Tellingly, the sauces, slaws, soups, and muffin mixes are shipped from a central distribution center to Fresh City restaurants, where the final cooking and assembling are done. SITE VISIT 45 Gosling Rd., Newington, New Hampshire. BURGER/FRIES EQUIVALENT Wraps (chicken, steak, shrimp, or duck with a variety of fixings), $4.99-$6.29. Also salads, soups, and stir-fries. KIDS' MENU Cheese quesadilla, Caesar salad, or teriyaki chicken with rice—plus a 22-ounce cup of soda or Nantucket Nectars apple juice, and a bag of Fresh City potato chips (at select locations), $3.99. FUN FACTOR After placing our order, we g0t an electronic key to insert in a cradle at our table; when our food was ready, the key lit up. WHAT'S FOR DESSERT? Brownies and three kinds of cookies. HANNAH SAYS "I like that they kept the quesadilla simple." BOTTOM LINE You can find decent food here (Steve was happy with his chicken burrito, and the only thing wrong with the kids' quesadilla was the mega soda and chips that came with it), but some menu offerings (smoothies made with orange sherbet) sound healthier than they really are.
Twelve locations in New England, with plans to expand in the Northeast and along the Eastern Seaboard (www.freshcity.com).
From the bright orange logo to the stainless-steel condiments bar, these spick-and-span little shops are as groovy as fast food gets. They were founded by seasoned New York restaurateur Louie Lanza, who began experimenting with healthful dishes at his larger establishments and never looked back. When Lanza's not chasing down suppliers of organic ingredients, he's sniffing out potential new restaurant sites. SITE VISIT 178 Eighth Ave., New York City. BURGER/FRIES EQUIVALENT Quarter-pounders of ostrich, turkey, chicken, tuna, or soy—or bigger burgers made from lean organic beef—topped with shredded romaine, julienned tomatoes, and sweet pickles, $4.95-$6.95. The "fries," $2.50, are organic potatoes "air-baked" in a special oven. Also salads, stir-fries, and a blue plate-special meat loaf with mashed potatoes. KIDS' MENU None, though the nitrate-free hot dogs (beef, turkey, or soy), burgers, and lemonade sweetened with apple and grape juiceare ideal for smaller appetites. FUN FACTOR For our kids, the main form of entertainment was squirting Better Burger's custom ketchups and dressings into tiny dipping cups—care for wasabi sauce on those fries? WHAT'S FOR DESSERT? Chocolate-chip cookies (85 percent organic ingredients) and a creamy coconut-mango smoothie. STEVE SAYS "It's not the burger of my dreams, but it's not bad either." BOTTOM LINE We shelled out double what we would have spent at a standard fast-food joint, but the kids didn't seem to mind (or even notice) the whole-wheat burger rolls, and the surprisingly crispy fries get our golden nugget award. We can't wait for this one to go national.
Three Manhattan locations and seven more planned for New York, followed by openings across the country (www.betterburgernyc.com).
Chipotle Mexican Grill
It started as a burrito joint in Denver back in 1993. Steve Ells, a chef who'd trained at the Culinary Institute of America and cooked at Stars in San Francisco, thought he'd try a gourmet version of a Mexican taquería, with the idea of rolling his profits into a "real restaurant." Instead, his burrito place was a hit, and Ells began opening more and more Chipotle outlets. The chain caught the eye of McDonald's, which bought into the company in 1998 and by 2001 had become the majority owner. Through it all Ells has stayed in control and the food quality has remained high. The company serves half a million pounds of organic beans a year, and has signed up free-range-pork supplier Niman Ranch. SITE VISIT 150 E. 44th St., New York City. BURGER/FRIES EQUIVALENT Burritos—big, handheld torpedoes—made of juicy cubes of steak, shredded beef, shredded pork, or grilled chicken wrapped in large, somewhat rubbery tortillas along with rice and beans, $4.85-$5.50. Also fajitas, tacos, and corn chips with guacamole. KIDS' MENU None, but they'll make a quesadilla ($1.50-$3) or single taco ($2.50), or simply scoop up some rice and beans ($1.50). FUN FACTOR Get the kids guessing what chipotle means (answer: a smoked, dried jalapeño pepper). Next question: how do you pronounce it? (That's chi-poat-lay.) WHAT'S FOR DESSERT? Nada, but after polishing off a burrito, you probably won't want it anyway. DANIEL SAYS "Those burritos are messy. You need to use two hands and a lot of napkins." BOTTOM LINE Healthy food disguised as fun food. We'll be back.
More than 350 restaurants coast-to-coast (www.chipotle.com).
From the Healthy Kids menu to the blown-up photo of a yellow VW bus emblazoned with bumper stickers, Evos is out to appeal to families. Burgers and fries here have less fat and cholesterol and fewer calories than the norm, and instead of shakes there are smoothies made with fresh fruit. The chain's three founders say they're committed to running their business in a way that's kind to the planet (note the earth logo). There's a recycling center right in the store, though a meal results in the usual litter of wrappings. The Evos name is derived from the word evolution and is meant to suggest a more "evolved" fast-food chain. SITE VISIT 609 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, Florida. BURGER/FRIES EQUIVALENT Quarter-pound soy, turkey, veggie, trout, or steak burgers dressed with crisp iceberg, a beefy slice of tomato, onion, and ketchup on a better-than-average roll, $3.74-$3.97. "Airfries" with five grams of fat per serving (compared with 22 grams for a medium-sized order at McDonald's), $1.49. Also wraps with spinach herb or honey whole wheat tortillas and salads made with organic greens. KIDS' MENU Plain burgers, breaded chicken strips, batter-dipped soy dogs, 16-ounce smoothies. FUN FACTOR Two TV's on mute, one tuned to a kids' channel; a magazine rack. WHAT'S FOR DESSERT? Famous Amos cookies and banana-nut bread. "They should use that blender to mix up a chocolate-Tofutti smoothie," suggested a customer at the table next to ours. HANNAH SAYS "This smoothie is great; it's got real chunks of mango in it." BOTTOM LINE We've never been wild about soy burgers, but Evos's moist, nicely seasoned Champion could change that. And we'll have another smoothie while we're at it.
Three restaurants in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area; a nationwide franchise plan is in the works (www.evos.com).
Fast-food restaurants aren't the only places where you can grab a bite on the road. Healthy Highways (Ceres Press, $18.95), a new U.S. guide by Nikki and David Goldbeck, lists more than 1,900 health-conscious stores and restaurants, pinpoints them on state maps, and provides directions from the nearest major road.