A worker at Salad and Go in Arizona
Legacy mega-brands like McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King have dominated the fast food industry for decades.
But within the last few years, many American consumers have shown a growing interest in healthier fast food that incorporates more low-calorie ingredients and fresh produce while remaining convenient and affordable.
In late November, top food executives from PepsiCo and Campbell Soup Company told Fortune that cleaner food is not just a trend, but a movement. And that shift is spilling over into the fast food market too, forcing legacy chains to try to keep up. In the last four years, Taco Bell has pledged to cut artificial ingredients and use cage-free eggs, and has introduced a lower-calorie menu. McDonald’s has evenworked with dietitians, removed antibiotics from its chicken, and added more salads to its menu.
But new healthy fast food chains are starting to compete with legacy brands, creating low-calorie menus for around the same price. Though these new US chains are regional, they’re growing in popularity, so they could spread nationwide in the coming years.
Check them out below.
Salad and Go — A drive-thru salad chain
Salad and Go sells 48-ounce salads for around $6, as well as soups, smoothies, and breakfast items for around $4.
They are trying to rival more established drive-thru chains by making the ordering experience fast and convenient. Cofounder Roushan Christofellis told BI.
Although it just launched this fall, Salad and Go already has six locations in Arizona. With plans to open eight more by 2018 and to expand elsewhere in the US by 2020.
Eatsa — An automated vegetarian chain
At the vegetarian chain Eatsa, customers place their orders on iPads and pick up their food from automated cubbies. Human workers, though, prepare everything in the back.
Specializing in quinoa bowls that cost around $7, the chain’s meals range from 450 to 700 calories.
Currently, Eatsa (which debuted in 2015) has four locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In late November, it added a DC location and will open its first New York City on December 6.
Dig Inn — A farm-to-table eatery
With a menu that emphasizes locally sourced vegetables. Dig Inn offers things like maple and sriracha-glazed Brussels sprouts and poached wild salmon. Diners order pre-made mains and sides at a counter, which are placed in compostable boxes.
Since its launch in 2011, the farm-to-table chain has opened 14 locations in New York City and one in Boston. By 2018, Dig Inn’s CEO Adam Eskin told BI that the company plans to open more Massachusetts locations and add others in a third state as well.
Dig Inn forms partnerships with local farmers, which allows it to keep its prices relatively low, Eskin said. However, the chain removed its small meal size option in 2015 (which cost around $6). So a plate from Dig Inn generally costs between $8-$11, which is more expensive than most food from McDonald’s or Burger King. But not by much — in New York City, where real estate prices are among the highest in the country, a McDonald’s Big Mac meal costs around $8.
The Kitchenette — A grab-and-go joint where most items cost $5
In August, Kimbal Musk (yes, he’s Elon Musk’s brother) launched a fast food restaurant that serves sandwiches, soups, and salads — the majority of which cost $4.95. Called the Kitchenette, it’s located inside the visitor’s center at Shelby Farms Park, a 4,500-acre urban park and conservancy in Memphis, Tennessee.
The grab-and-go spot is part of Musk’s larger chain of restaurants. “The Kitchen” which strives to use produce and meat from local purveyors. Musk hopes to launch more Kitchenette locations within Memphis and eventually nationwide, though there are no firm plans yet.
Freshii — A plant-based chain that’s 10 years strong
Freshii, a Canadian fast food franchise founded in 2005, offers salads, wraps, and bowls, the majority of which are under 700 calories and cost $7. It boasts more than 300 locations worldwide and is one of America’s most popular healthy fast food chains. In the past few years, new locations have opened inside airports, stadiums, and Target stores.
In 2015, after McDonald’s announced its menu improvements, Freshii’s CEO Matthew Corrin sent an open letter to McDonald’s, offering to partner with the fast-food giant and pushing the chain to serve healthier food.
Everytable — A fast food chain that changes its prices based on the average income in the neighborhood where it’s located
Everytable, which launched two Los Angeles locations in 2016, adjusts its prices depending on what its local customers can afford.
The South LA location (where households earn a median salary of $30,882), for example, offers salads and bowls for less than $4.50, while the Everytable in downtown LA (where the median salary is $99,990) offers the same items for around $8. Both stores’ ingredients are sourced from local purveyors. But the idea is for sales from locations in wealthier neighborhoods to partially subsidize operations in lower income areas.
Everytable’s cofounders, Sam Polk and David Foster, told BI they plan to expand the chain to more LA neighborhoods and eventually to other cities around the US.
LocoL — A California eatery where everything costs $6 or less
Re-gram pic from @postcardpr, words by @ridingshotgunla: 3rd time we cooked the #LocoL burger.@dcpatterson is now my brother for life. The burger is before being pressed. It's bread developed by Tartine Bakery that uses koji cultures. That's not all meat in the patty. There are grains and tofu in there but you'd never know but then your soul will, because grains are good for ya. There's a relish in there with the trimmings of vegetables, there's an awesome sauce in there with the same. There's real and not processed cheese in there. The buns a bit big we gotta go down a few grams. We wanna press it a bit like a cubano, maybe, I don't know yet. It's as light as a feather and eats like a bowl of rice but fits in your hand like the burger it is. And it tastes like tomorrow. It's all about transparency. That's #LocoL and that's exactly what we don't currently get in most of our conglomerates and corporations that feed the millions of us in this world. We all deserve better. Wait till you see the pupusa/arepa/tamale type things we got going next. It's like the ancient energy of the future. Get with us, link is in bio.
LocoL, a concept spawned by famed chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, offers a new take on traditional fast food.
Its dishes might contain more calories than, say, a salad, but everything is made with high-quality, locally sourced, whole ingredients. In LocoL’s cheeseburgers, for example, cooked grains and tofu make up 30% of the beef patties. Its chicken nuggets also contain fermented barley. Instead of soda, there are fruity aguas frescas made in-house every day.
The chain, which launched in 2016, currently has two permanent locations and an array of food trucks in Los Angeles. By the end of 2017, Choi and Patterson hope to have nine locations nationwide, including a coffee shop and a kitchen where their staff can prepare the trucks’ food off-site, according to Eater.
If you’re in LA and are inkling for a Big Mac, LocoL’s $4 burger — and served at the same speed as McDonald’s— is better for the environment, slightly better for your body, and according to First We Feast, tastes great.
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