While McDonald’s continues to hemorrhage millions each month, a new California startup is quietly attempting to set a different standard for fast food.
Technically, Amy’s Drive Thru is not exactly a startup–the burger joint is the brainchild of Amy’s Kitchen, a vegetarian frozen food empire. After 27 years of making packaged mac and cheese and burritos, Amy’s is launching an all-vegetarian, 95% organic diner in Rohnert Park, a city north of San Francisco. Everything will be made from scratch on site–from tofu to buns–and will be ready in less than three minutes.
The star on the menu is a veggie burger that took 1,000 taste tests to perfect and that is designed to tempt beef-lovers away from the real thing. “We didn’t do many taste tests with vegetarians,” says Andy Berliner, co-founder and co-CEO of Amy’s Kitchen. “We were trying to target people who would eat at one of the existing fast food burger places and get it to the place where they would say ‘This is better, I’d rather have this than whatever else.’ And we did that. We consistently hear that now.”
At $2.99, the burger costs less than a Big Mac, though it doesn’t come with a drink and fries. It’ll be served on a house-made bun with locally-brined pickles, organic tomatoes, and a carefully-concocted secret sauce.
Unlike most fast food restaurants, Amy’s will serve burritos, pizzas, macaroni and cheese, and salads along with its burger. “We had a lot of resistance to that from the people who have helped us with this, saying there’s too many choices,” says Berliner. “But we just felt they were good alternatives. The salads were a big debate, and took a lot of convincing–but our salads are amazing.”
The recipes, apart from the new burger, were adapted from the cult favorites the company has been making for years. “It’s assembled fresh, is the only difference,” says Berliner. “But the core of the recipes has been developed over 27 years.” The company has always poured time into each food–their frozen Indian meals, for example, took five years to get right.
Now, they’re hoping the new restaurant will lure customers away from established chains, just as its frozen foods have done. “We will end up bringing people around,” he says. “And suddenly they will care more about what they eat.”
While others try to project an image of sustainability–like McDonald’s, which is now attempting to attract millennials with the McBike, a burger package designed to sling over handlebars–Amy’s is actually going deep. Because the food is all vegetarian (with vegan options for everything, including milkshakes), it automatically has a drastically smaller carbon and water footprint. It’s also almost all organic, and many ingredients are local. The restaurant itself will have a green roof and solar panels, the tables are made from reclaimed wood, and the tableware will be collected for recycling.
It may be unfair to compare Amy’s single planned location to megachains like McDonald’s, and indeed, the model sounds challenging to scale. But that’s what Amy’s hopes to eventually do, assuming the first restaurant succeeds. “We’ll know in a few months,” Berliner says. “We have no idea. It’s a one-off at this point, but our intention would be to grow it slowly over the next few years, and if it’s successful as many people feel it will be, in five years or so to expand it more rapidly.”
He sees it as just one example of a sea change in fast food. “You’re reading more and more about people cleaning up their ingredients,” he says. “I think it’s happening, because consumers are demanding it. It obviously has a long way to go–it’s not easy to change something that’s really big. But I think over time everything’s going to get better, and greener, and healthier.”