When Fast-Food Startups Strive to Improve the Way Communities Eat
At 11 a.m. on a sunny winter morning in Watts, Calif., a young dad, a schoolteacher, and a pair of hipsters stand in line to eat at Locol, Los Angeles's latest culinary playground.
These customers haven't shown up from across the city to eat caviar or duck breast. They're after burgs and foldies—slang for hamburgers and tacos.
Chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson conceived Locol as a new breed of restaurant chain, a bid to prove that food can be fast and delicious, affordable and healthy—all while feeding underserved communities. They opened the first branch of the chain in Watts, a relatively poor neighborhood saturated with unhealthy fast-food restaurants such as Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Burger King.
Burgers at Locol are served in a bun much thinner than what you'll find at Burger King, while the patty, a blend of beef, grain and soy, is thicker and loaded with protein. At $4, the burger also comes loaded with leafy greens; this isn't the thin slice of wilted lettuce you'd find in a Big Mac. It’s more, and it’s better.
One fast-food staple you won't find on the menu is a carton of French fries. Instead, sides (or "yotchays'") include spicy corn chips, messy greens, and flatbread. No sodas, either. Those have been replaced with agua frescas, a blend of fruit, seeds, flowers, or cereals with sugar and water that is popular in Latin America.
A doctor might not prescribe a daily diet of Locol's cheeseburgers to a patient with heart disease, but customers won't leave the restaurant feeling greasy, inside and out.
"The core mission of Locol has never changed: upend the fast food industry and feed our brothers and sisters delicious healthy food at affordable prices," Choi wrote in an Instagram post the week before Locol opened. Customers can walk out with a burger, a taco, a side, and a drink for less than $9.
An Auspicious Debut
The initial response has been rapturous. Food and Wine declared Locol the best new restaurant of 2016, while L.A. Weekly deemed the restaurant "perhaps the country’s most invigorated and purposeful socio-culinary experiment."
Choi and Patterson have positioned their fast-food venture as a means of urban renewal, setting up shop in poorer, urban communities in which fast, greasy food is ubiquitous. The restaurants employ locals, which in Watts translates to a mostly black kitchen and security staff.
Locol invited some scrutiny when Choi said Locol would open its second location in Uptown Oakland, an Oakland, Calif., neighborhood with plenty of upscale restaurants. Choi rejected the criticism in the same Instagram post, saying Locol would open locations in San Francisco's Tenderloin and in East Oakland once lease agreements, construction delays and permits have been resolved.
Locol's sociocultural ethos has attracted a phalanx of prominent advocates, from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, both of whom attended Locol's opening party. Los Angeles's Economic and Workforce Development Department paid Choi $275,000 to help finance the Watts location, Garcetti's staff said in a press release that projected Locol would create 27 jobs for residents of Watts, a neighborhood known nationwide for riots that torched businesses on the street where Locol now does business.
“CDBG funding is awarded to projects that help revitalize neighborhoods, one of Mayor Garcetti’s goals,” the release said.
Good, for Profit
Choi and Patterson's move into fast food isn't a matter of pure altruism. Fast-food restaurants are cheap to open and can be very profitable, which helps explain the sudden surge in fast-food restaurants opened by classically trained chefs and "gourmand" restaurateurs.
“When you look at the growth of the restaurant industry over the past several years, the fast-casual segment has been a sweet spot,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association. “You're seeing many more chefs focus on this segment, honing their concepts on very contemporary cuisines and offerings that are popular with younger age groups.”
Danny Meyer, whose company owns elite New York restaurants Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, and Union Square Café, helped start Shake Shack, an upscale burger chain that has spread from New York to Los Angeles. Former Del Posto pastry chef (and rock 'n' roller) Brooks Headley opened the vegetarian, sorta-fast, sorta-casual Superiority Burger in Manhattan's East Village. Chefs Stephen Fretz and Anothony Carron, who worked together for San Francisco-based restaurant magnate Michael Mina, opened Top Round, a roast beef restaurant south of Hollywood.
“Chefs gravitate towards fast food because it's all we could afford to eat for the first 15 years of our lives as a chef,” Fretz said in an interview. “Naturally, you think you can do it better.”
Like Locol, Top Round offers consumers a healthier take on fast food by using fresh ingredients and eschewing processed foods. Roast beef is cooked in-house for 10 to 14 hours, producing a lean piece of meat.
“It's not an apple, but we make our own cheese whiz and we make our own sauces,” Fretz zaid. “It's not nearly as bad for you as what you'd get from Arbys.”
Spreading the Word
Chains such as Arby's still predominate in South Los Angeles, said Hines Buchanan, a DJ who grew up in downtown Los Angeles and took part in an open mic night in Leimert Park, a neighborhood a few miles north of Watts. For years, the open mic took place at the Good Life Cafe, a health food spot rare to the area that has since closed.
Buchanan found out about Locol from the Instagram feed of Evidence, a rapper and producer whose real name is Michael Taylor Perretta. Perretta's photographs hang on the walls of the restaurant.
Buchanan, a new dad, waited in line for two hours on opening day to buy burgers and bowls. That won't deter him from going back.
“Being from around there, there are only a few good spots to eat,” Buchanan said. “Other than that, it's just fast food. What Roy is doing is amazing. How come it takes him to do that, and he's not even from the area?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mis-stated the restaurants owned by Danny Meyer's company in the 15th paragraph - Meyer's group no longer owns Eleven Madison Park.