Where Are the Healthy Drive-Thrus?

Fast food tastes disgusting. It's made from Z-grade ingredients and doled out by people who are paid slave wages by companies whose very existence poses a threat to the planet. Each meal we eat at BK or McDonald's brings us one step closer to a heart attack and produces a pile of garbage that will be shoveled into a hole in the earth.

So why do we eat it? Because in our busy, busy lives, rushing from point A to point B, we don't have time to cook, we don't have time to get takeout from a restaurant, we don't even have time to turn off the car and run into a convenience store. Sometimes it's drive-thru or nothing.

But why do drive-thrus unilaterally peddle such God-awful food? Pink-slime burgers, mystery chicken; there's nothing mysterious about making a burger and fries out of real, healthy ingredients. Where are the healthy drive-thrus?

"I can only think of four or five in the whole country," marvels Eric Brent, who runs the mammoth online vegetarian restaurants listings site HappyCow. "That's not a lot. Funny, isn't it?"

Yeah, it is. And so we wondered, why?

Maybe Healthy People Don't Eat in the Car?
Healthier fast food is a burgeoning category in the restaurant biz, with chains like Chipotle (buyers of antibiotic- and hormone-free meat) leading the way for smaller minichains like EVOS in the southeast and Better Burger in New York City, which serve sustainable/organic meat.

Evolution Fast Food

And of the healthy fast-food restaurants that do have drive-thrus, like the Pacific Northwest's Burgerville, and Nature's Express—which has two locations ready to serve you cheddar lentil burgers, fries, and natural soda through your car window—business is good. Mitch Wallis of Evolution Fast Food in San Diego, and Dr. Carl Myers of Nature's Express, affirm that vast chunks of their business come from their drive-thrus. It's a solid 40 percent for Evolution, and almost half for Nature's Express.

That's a lot of healthy people eating in their cars, huh? So if the market is there, where's the chain to serve it? Could it be that something else is going on?

Maybe Healthy Foods Are Slow Foods?
It can take upward of an hour to turn "things in the refrigerator" into "things on a plate," so maybe healthy restaurants are just too slow for drive-thrus?

This is indeed an issue, says Orean C. Thomas, the founder of Orean's the Health Express, which has been serving vegetarian fast food to the hungry people of Pasadena, California, since 1979. Though the mechanics of preparing a burger are largely the same whether you're using a veggie or an industrial beef patty, many whole-food dishes are indeed slow to prepare. Thus, Orean's limits the drive-thru menu to things that can be served superquickly.

Orean's the Health Express

"If you have a sit-down place and someone hustles your food out to you in five minutes, you feel like it's fast, but five minutes is an eternity when you're waiting in a car," says Thomas. "No pizzas on the drive-thru. Only stuff that's fast. Nothing that has to go under a heat lamp."

With toe-tapping customers in mind, healthier fast-food joints with drive-thrus are cooking as quickly as they can. At Evolution, management aims for its food to be ready four minutes or less after ordering; Nature's Express tries for three and a half to four minutes. It's not quite as fast as fast food. But it's not too slow for someone sitting in a car, either.

There's No NIMBY Like a Fast-Food NIMBY
Plenty of people are out there eating fast food. But nobody wants a new fast-food restaurant with a drive-thru opening up in their neighborhood, because of twin demons that Ruth Stroup, who specializes in restaurant insurance at Farmers Insurance Group in Oakland, California, sums up in three words: "traffic and trash." This is amply illustrated by the tale of the Kwik Way on Lake Park Avenue in Oakland, California. Long ago, the Kwik Way was a neon-bedecked drive-in. Later, Kwik Way was a run-down hamburger shack with a drive-thru, housed in a vintage building in Oakland's Lake Merritt neighborhood.

And then the Kwik Way closed. And it's been empty ever since. McDonald's tried moving in. Fatburger tried moving in. Other restaurants tried. Heck, Myers even looked into putting a Nature's Express in the spot. Each one was shot down. And now, in a jewel of a bustling neighborhood that holds a retro movie palace and sparkling, twinkling Lake Merritt, the Kwik Way has sat silent and dead, with plastic bags blowing through the parking lot, for years.

"Oh, no zoning board's going to let a new fast-food drive-thru open up," says Stroup. "The feeling is that there are too many already! The only companies that could promise enough to the surrounding communities to make it worth their while are the McDonald's of the world. Not your mom-and-pops."

Nature's Express in Yuma, Arizona

So if a restaurant wants a drive-thru, by golly, they have to find one that's shuttered. Orean's the Health Express is in an old Pup 'n' Taco. Nature's Express's Yuma, Arizona, drive-thru? It used to be a Chinese buffet.

The difficulty in finding locations is the one thing mentioned by every restaurateur we spoke to. There's no critical mass yet, no one big chain that can swing a 400-pound gorilla stick and sit just about anywhere he wants to.

Maybe that day is coming. Evolution's Wallis was one of the most enthusiastic about future plans: "We are currently planning to expand and open additional units and they will all be drive-thru units unless they are located inside of a shopping mall or airport or somewhere where there are no cars at all," he writes in an email. "Also, we are designing a 'pollution-free' drive-thru which will be encased by plants that will absorb the emissions coming from the vehicles."

Wallis and his cohorts are at work securing the capital to make those plans a reality; if that comes through, he doesn't anticipate much push-back from the neighbors. "Yes, there is resistance to new drive-thrus but not as much if you use 'green' technology," he writes.

Others think the idea of healthy drive-thru chains isn't ready for the masses: "All that traffic on the road, all those mainstream Americans who are eating their Big Macs, they don't want to eat at Veggie Grill," reflects T. K. Pillan, co-founder and co-CEO of the chain of five vegetarian restaurants located in (you'll never guess!) California. "Hopefully in 10 or 15 years they will be. But not yet."

McDonald's image source: Flickr member jcorrius under Creative Commons