Friday, May 22, 2009

fast food

Generally, I don't like fast food much, though I do admire the concept of food that is fast, convenient and generally tasty. I admire, not the way their business principles are executed, but the fundamental principles themselves. Fast food undoubtedly destroys small business, is unsustainable, inhumane, not to mention unhealthy, and its pioneers can be compared to the robber barons of the industrial revolution. However this is what it has become, and indeed, all those adjectives I just listed have become synonymous with fast food. Why not dissipate these assumptions? Who's to say that food can't be sustainable and relatively healthy, while still being convenient and tasty?

The big problem with this idea is money. It is simply impossible to charge the same price for humanely raised, grass-fed beef as McDonald's charges for their beef, yet using basic fast food principles, I think that prices could be lower than one would expect. The fast food giants control about 85% of the market for beef (Fast Food Nation), and they buy from a few large suppliers. These large suppliers, namely ConAgra, have done their best to eliminate competition. Smaller ranchers have no one to sell to. Why not source meat from dozens, if not hundreds of smaller ranchers, therefore supporting smaller farmers and putting healthy competition back in the marketplace, therefore supporting smaller ranchers (and in turn increasing quality) and creating some healthy competition to keep prices low.

The meat or course, isn't the only thing that costs money. Because fast food is really more industry than food, everything gets done more efficiently. The whole system is a production line itself. To lower prices while maintaining quality, we must find ground where industry meets quality. A trick is oversimplifying the labor to the extent that almost anyone can do it. This is where sous vide comes in handy. Anyone can vacuum pack a chicken breast then drop the pouch in a water bath. All anyone would really need to do cooking-wise is sear it off on a flaming hot flat-top to order. The food is all pre-cooked sous vide, all that's necessary is a few minutes of heating. This food is definitely fast, requires cheap labor, is convenient, and could potentially be very tasty.

And finally the menu. The theme is sandwiches.

Meats: Chicken Confit. Chicken Breast. Pulled Pork. Pork Belly. Brisket. Burgers.
All the meats would be sous vide before being seared to order, or in the case of brisket or pulled pork, held warm.

Toppings: Avocado, caramelized onions, Balsalmic reduction, garlic aioli, red pepper aioli, bleu cheese, sharp cheddar, aged gouda, bacon, apple, roasted broccoli, broccoli rabe, fried egg.

Breads: Whole wheat sourdough. Whole wheat brioche (yes I just said that). Whole Wheat hoagie roll. Whole wheat croissant.
All of these are 100% whole wheat, though I would probably end up serving white bread too because there might not be a big enough market in the whole wheat field, but who knows.

Do I really like this blueprint that I have right now? Yes. But do I really know any specifics regarding the business aspect? No, definitely not. So don't quote me.

Note: Someone mentioned that fast food really is actually very good for small business, because of franchises. They said that the franchise provides a somewhat low-risk ticket in to business, that would be impossible without the help of the fast food restaurant. I see the point, but I strongly disagree with this. It is true that fast food companies make it much easier for small business owners to start up, however many fast food companies employ ruthless tactics to keep franchisees under their strict control. To quote Fast Food Nation "In recent years conflicts between franchisees and franchisors have become much more common... It is perfectly legal under federal law for a fast food chain to take kickbacks from its suppliers, to open a new restaurant next door to an existing franchisee, and to evict a franchisee without giving cause or paying any compensation" (Schlosser 99). -And fast food companies take advantage of this. To site an example, a Jack in the Box exec "once terminated the contracts of 642 Jack in the Box franchisees, giving them just thirty days to move out" (Schlosser 99). Fast food companies do their best to keep franchises away from "small business." They regulate suppliers, and pretty much everything else about the franchise. Technically a McDonald's, or a Burger King, or a Subway, or a Wendy's franchise could be called a small business, but walk inside and it is merely an expansion of a major corporation. Moreover, even if fast food didn't do all this, what's the good of a "small business" fast food restaurant. Sure it provides oppurtunity for business owners, but it provides none of the benefits we look to in a small business. And finally, fast food has undoubtedly destroyed more than it has created. Though it is not entirely the fault of the ff industry, the U.S. has shifted towards anything corporate, which in itself, makes life more difficult for small-business owners. It's much harder now to own a mom and pop pizzeria with a pizza hut or sbarro's on every corner. The people who raise the food are likewise hurt. Smaller ranchers have trouble finding business, as do potato farmers, and farmers with chickens. I could go on. Anyway, I don't know why I spent so much time on that, but once I start, it's hard to stop.


James said...

It all comes back to sous vide in the end.....

It works though. One of the first jobs I had was in a bistro where we had a seperate production kitchen - so we could cook real food, vac pac it and reheat it in the tiny service kitchen. The problem for the fast food restaurants though is labour costs which is why they have to squeeze food costs about as dry as you can get.

I think for small farmers, the fast food industry is just too hard to get into - so price sensitive. The big companies start off giving a good price, then gradually lower it. In some cases small producers who don't have the benefits of economies of scale can get to a point where they barely break even or make a loss. Small farmers are much better looking at other markets where they can achieve a more realistic price.

And if you start selling to one of those food giants, you expand your business and they suddenly drop you, as so many farmers find, they're in serious financial trouble.

Also the problem with using small suppliers for 'food giants' would be reliable and enough supply, and the added transport and other logistical costs of going to a lot of small producers rather than a few big ones.

The wholewheat idea sounds nice, but niche.

I'm not sure they are quite the 'robber barrons of the industrial revolution', like our wonderful bankers, they saw a market and exploited it. That's the market economy. If small businesses want to survive and thrive you have you find a way around the giants - a very good USP and hard work.

Kelley said...

I like all you had to say! I honestly don't ever eat fast food because it is NASTY! but I would definitely eat from the menu you described!!

Keep challenging the system! keep coming up with new ideas!! that is how change occurs! great job!

Tags said...

There's a Dunkin Donuts right around the corner from me, but I haven't gone to a DD in years.

Even though a donut costs less than a buck and a raspberry chibouste at Le Petit Mitron costs almost 4 bucks, it's worth it because the drunken dog nut is hydrogenated (trans fat) while the chibouste is made from butter, sugar, flour, and cream. (and real raspberries)

And most of the stuff at LPM costs much less, like the chocolate-almond croissant, pear tart, eclairs, amandines.

Daniella said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. Your thoughts on the topic reminded me of what I have often heard Anthony Bourdain disdain about fast food, and champion about independent small businesses and street food.

I couldn't agree with you (and him) more.

Keep up the great work!

Kyle Albert said...

I'm not sure that all of what you said makes sense. Sourcing meet from dozens of small manufacturers would drastically increase costs of meat, not decrease it.

You're menu, while could be prepared quickly, isn't what America believes is "fast food". It might be quick, even though doing some of what you mention is a lot more complicated than fast food right now, it would definitely not be cheap. Aged Gouda? Avocado? Brisket? Most of the food items you mentioned, while delicious, are not cheap and that's what (most) people look for in fast food.

You also have to remember that its the consumers that are responsible for all the fast food restaurants. If people didn't like eating there, they companies would not exist. If people's tastes start swinging towards your way of thinking, types of restaurants like yours would be springing up everywhere. That's just how capitalism works.

You also might want to do some research other than fast food nation in the future, movies like that are often biased and its good to have multiple sources.

Sorry to ramble on, I really do enjoy reading your blog but disagree slightly with some of what you said here. I would totally eat at the restaurant you're describing though.

Anonymous said...

Unknown said...

"Grass fed" beef? I know what you mean, but please don't get fooled by the meaningless distinction. Virtually all beef in the US is feed grass at some point in its life. It's a term to fool well-meaning consumers who are trying to eat better but end up getting swindled by less-than-reputable producers and retailers. I used to think "pasture raised" was what I was looking for until after probing a producer I got her to admit that the beef had been finished on grain.

If you find a rancher who sells you pasture raised grass fed and finished beef, and produce well made food with it--people will pay extra for the privilege of eating it.

Ashley said...

I just have to say, if anyone has eaten real pizza at a Mom and Pop place and still likes Sbarros more...they lack tastebuds. Trust me, Sbarros never hurt anyone. If any of the chains do, it would be more like a Papa John's, Domino's, etc, because they offer more deals and have more money for advertising.

Mandoline said...

The US needs more Pret a Manger shops.

Nick N said...

james-but isn't that exactly what the robber barons did? Remember they are robber barons to some, but captains of industry to others.

You're definitely write a bout the small producers. This is a really idealistic view of what I could make fast food, and it definitely wouldn't all work.

sawyer family- thanks a lot. I appreciate it.

tags- I still gotta get there.

danielle- thanks!

kyle albert- There will always be a niche for today's fast food (at least in the next few generations) because it's just too good for the lower class to pass up. There will always be a niche however for healthier eating also, and essentially i'm hoping to expand that latter niche by introducing a newer concept. I would be happy if restaurants like that started popping up.

Your absolutely correct in saying that I should get more sources than Fast Food Nation, and if I was actually trying to make this a legit concept, I would, however this post was really a result of reading Fast Food Nation, not a result of market research.

I certainly appreciate the advice.

Andrew: true true, but my concept implies truly grass fed beef.

Nick N said...

i'm not sure why i wrote "write" instead of "right." I just love writing too much.

Anonymous said...

Write On! The problem with homonyms is their invisibility on Spell Check.
I will be surprised if nobody busts your chops about the comment "it's just too good for the lower class to pass up". It is a Classist statement, and painfully true and accurate.
McDonalds have advertised themselves into the hearts of 2 year-olds, and it takes a special family situation to break the programming on bad nutrition. It is devastating to lower income families. Starches are cheaper. Fried food is "eye-friendly" on the tube.
Even Sandra Lee and the other minions of Satan have shown the world that nutritious food can be prepared fast. Rachel Ray is not Alice Waters, but she does show how to use some fresh ingredients in a quick preparation.
Jamie Oliver threw his celebrity weight behind the movement to improve school lunches. Alice Waters volunteered for a national position in the current administration, but maybe she should try starting her own foundation after she learns the Heimlich maneuver.
The Food Network, for all its faults is raising the bar in this country. I am glad to see a generation coming up that is this passionate about the things that we eat. And some junk food is OK, in a sinful sort of way. Michigan Coney Dogs aint health food, but they are the bomb!

Anonymous said...

"It's just too good for the lower class to pass up"

notably, this is often due to poor urban planning. A lot of poor families living in the cities have little or no access to a supermarket anyway.

Jumper said...

Great post. There are two things the Big Chains do that you overlooked: their demographics and traffic analyses are excellent. It's very hard for the small business owner to get this kind of data about location. Which as we know is a large part of success in restauranting, fast or slow.

And "hamburger university." Testing all combinations and varieties of ingredients until they please as many people as they can.

Having said that, your model, IF enjoying the same or similar advantages somehow, seems more viable than at first glance.

[p.s. It's "cite" not "site" in your article.]

Tags said...

I'd rather fast than eat fast food from a huge conglomerate.

Daniel King said...

As someone who doesn't like fast food, loves cooking, and teaches college english, I loved this blog for so many reasons. 1.) Who wouldn't eat at your restaurant?!?! 2.) I really need to try sous vide-ing something... anything... maybe sous vide muffins? 3.) If it's okay, I'd like to use this blog entry in my class when teaching argumentative/ research essays (and, more importantly, the practical applications thereof).

Anonymous said...

Grow up Peter Pan, the real world does not operate in your fantasy land.
If you believe that you could supply thousands of fast food restaurants with your menu at a reasonable cost to both you and the customer than you have zero understanding of what it takes to make a business function.

Also getting all your facts from Fast Food Nation is like quoting Wikipedia or Michael Moore. No wonder you got terrible grades last semester.

And one last thing, fast food chains have provided jobs for people in poor areas so they can feed their families and stay alive. In fact many people who have worked at McDonalds have gone on to do amazing things. Grow up, the rest of the world doesn't live by the same rules as an over privileged pompous ass who thinks he is a chef.

Kyle Albert said...

Hey anonymous, get over your self. If you have a problem with what the poster said than say why its wrong, don't just call him stupid and leave it at that.

There are lots of examples of restaurants that are similar to what he proposes. Think Chipotle, Go Roma, or even Panda Express. They serve higher end fast food, and they are all successful.

Your last point about how a lot of people work at fast food restaurants isn't relevant at all. He's not proposing destroying all fast food restaurants, just adding a healthier and slightly more upscale model into the market.

You attack him for using Fast Food Nation and then don't use any sources in your post.

You're not being constructive at all, go troll somewhere else.