by Dan Rafter
For Keith Kitsis, the decision was a simple one: People often need to eat fast. But eating fast shouldn’t have to mean eating unhealthy, too.
That’s why 23 years ago, Kitsis founded Crazy Bowls & Wraps in St. Louis, a fast-food restaurant offering everything from kale — long before it was cool — to quinoa with its wraps, salads and bowls.
Today, Crazy Bowls & Wraps has 15 locations in the Missouri, Ohio and Illinois, with the majority of these restaurants in the St. Louis market. The chain was a bit of a pioneer more than two decades ago. But today, Crazy Bowls & Wraps has some company: Healthier fast-food restaurants are opening across the country, including in the Midwest.
Kitsis said that this isn’t just a fad, either.
“This whole movement of healthier fast food has evolved over the years,” Kitsis said. “You have Chipotle talking about its better ingredients. You have the explosion in gourmet grocers like Whole Foods. This is not just a trend. People really want to eat this way. They want to know where their food is coming from. Healthy doesn’t mean low-calorie. it means knowing where your ingredients are sourced and the quality of those ingredients.”
A growing movement
Restaurants are one subset of retail that is doing well today. And fast-casual restaurants are doing especially well, while big, traditional fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s are seeing sluggish, if any, growth.
The growth of healthier fast-food restaurants is an example of this.
Trends expert Daniel Levine, director of New York City-based trends consultancy The Avant-Guide Institute, said that healthier fast-food choices is in no way a fad. Instead, it is a long-term trend, one that will only grow in the coming years.
“We draw a line between trend and fad,” Levine said. “The biggest difference is longevity. Fads are quick flashes. Trends last longer. This movement is definitely a trend.”
For proof, Levine points to the new struggles faced by high-end grocers such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. These stores used to face little competition from traditional supermarkets. Today, though, even standard supermarkets such as Jewel-Osco and Safeway are stocking much of the same healthier fare in which organic and gourmet grocers specialize.
To Levine, this is evidence of a long-term trend in the country.
Then there’s LYFE Kitchen, a fast-food chain with Midwest locations in the Chicago and Memphis markets. This chain, which offers such healthier fare as hummus, un-fried chicken strips, flatbread pizzas, salads and soups, was started by Mike Roberts and Mike Donahue, two former high-ranking executives with McDonald’s.
“What is so fascinating to me, from a trends perspective, is that guys from McDonald’s, who knows what the eating zeitgeist is in America, thinks that this kind of healthier fast-food restaurant is the next big thing. Just looking at the direction toward healthy eating that these guys took, shows me that this movement is 100 percent a trend and not just a fad.”
Organic fast food in Chicago
A good example of this trend is Nic’s Organic Fast Food, which opened its first location earlier this year in the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows.
As the name suggests, Nic’s serves traditional fast food — everything from hamburgers and fries to breakfast sandwiches — that is certified organic. The food isn’t low-calorie, but the restaurant’s founders — husband-and-wife team Benjamin and Nicolette Brittsan — say that it is healthier.
The Brittsans are parents, and say they struggled to find organic fast-food options in the Chicago area for their two children.
Their organic restaurant fills that void, the Brittsans say.
Tom & Eddie’s is another good example. This chain, with locations in the Chicago suburbs of Vernon Hills, Lombard and Naperville, also serves what looks like traditional fast-food mainstays such as hamburgers, chicken strips and chicken sandwiches. But this small chain also makes its food from scratch with all-natural ingredients.
The restaurants also offer healthier choices, such as the Yin & Yang burger, a burger made from ground edamame beans, and the Islander, a sandwich made from sushi-grade tuna. Tom & Eddie’s also offers a ground-turkey burger with crumbled Feta cheese.
Tom & Eddie’s, too, was born out of McDonald’s. The chain was founded by Ed Rensi, president and chief executive officer of McDonald’s USA, and Tom Dentice, executive vice president of McDonald’s Corp. in charge of operations and franchising.
Buona fast-food restaurants, with 19 locations in Chicago, are known for their Italian beef sandwiches. That doesn’t sound particularly healthy.
But the chain doest serve food made from scratch. It uses all-natural ingredients. And it also offers its Skip-the-Gym menu, which it launched in 2015. Items on this menu come in at under 500 calories.
Customers can choose a 5-inch skinny Italian beef sandwich — which comes on multigrain bread — and enjoy a sandwich that comes with just 266 calories. The chain’s signature pepper-and-egg sandwich — a Chicago tradition — will cost diners just 408 calories.
What’s interesting about such restaurants is that they aren’t necessarily serving low-calorie food. Eating at a Tom & Eddie’s or Nic’s Organic Fast Food won’t help your waistline.
Instead, these restaurants are focusing on organics, food that doesn’t include artificial ingredients and locally-sourced items.
Jessica Levings, registered dietitian, real estate developer and owner of the Balanced Pantry, a company that helps food clients create the Nutrition Facts labels on their food, says that she isn’t surprised at this trend. Consumers have simply gotten savvier when it comes to their food, she said.
“Healthy, real food is the number-one thing consumers want to see more of on restaurant menus,” Levings said. “Consumers’ perception of healthy food has evolved, and now includes not just calories and nutrients, but also food free from artificial ingredients and traceable to the source.”
Levine says that the bigger, well-established fast-food chains have taken notice of this. An example? Earlier this year, McDonald’s announced that it will make its Quarter Pounder sandwiches out of fresh, not frozen, beef.
Levine says that those fast-food chains that don’t adapt their menus to include at least some healthier or organic items will struggle to maintain a steady stream of customers.
“Those that don’t recognize this trend? They will die,” Levine said.