Nu fast food

Turning McDonald’s upside-down.

Turning McDonald’s upside-down.

(Come friend Aunt Ruthie on Facebook and let’s hang out.)

Beat your swords into plough shares, they say, or your Chicken McNuggets into a Quinoa Crunch Wrap.

Either way works for Aunt Ruth, because, finally, there’s just one question: How will change come? There’s a million ways to it, but one that’s worked well is harnessing what people already do best and pointing it in a better direction—with the dual bottom lines of eco-responsibility and fiscal self-interest always in view.

Down in Palo Alto in NorCal, LYFE Kitchen opened last fall. A small cadre of former McDonald’s execs is taking the company’s penchant for assembling food quickly and is reinventing the fast-food restaurant. While a burger and fries is still on the menu, the burger is grass-fed beef, and the fries are baked sweet-potato fries. If you were looking for a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese (weighing in at a svelte 750 calories), this ain’t that.

With a menu that boasts roasted root vegetables, organic arugula, grilled barramundi, risotto peas and carrots, and free-range chicken pasta—and, yeah, there’s a vegan and gluten-free menu—it’s maybe too good to be true, eh? With spousal unit and nephew in tow, Aunt Ruth went off to see for herself.

The physical space was airy and light. A wall of herbs and spices split the room; the menu glowed from an electronic screen behind the register. There’s predictable literary/foodie quotes on the walls; furnishings and colors were tastefully post-Whole Foodian. The line for dinner was long, but it moved quickly, and the food was served quicker still. And, yeah—the eats were tasty, costing $10 to $12 per entree. Beer and wine (local, organic) could be had. No Coke. (Nephew handled it well.)

The manager’s name was Kevin; he pointed out the coach of the Stanford University football team at a nearby table, saying he and the missus dine there often.

While they’ve done the appropriate eco-curtsies, using recycled this and that in the fixtures, the key change LYFE Kitchen can promise will come if it does for natural foods what McDonald’s did for conventional farmers. Its corporate plan, according to a recent piece in Wired, is to create hundreds of these restaurants over the next several years. The impact—on natural foods, in general, and organic farms, in particular—could be game changing.

You can already buy LYFE Kitchen entrees in local Costco stores; while corporate management couldn’t name a date, Sacramento is in line as LYFE Kitchen expands. Stay tuned.