Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Evolution of Fast Food

What started with girls on roller skates and has ended with organic beef burritos? That's right! Fast food.

Isn't it amazing how far fast food has come? In many ways, it could be argued that fast food started as high quality, simple recipes made by mom-'n-pop restaurants, mutated into high-speed, low-quality restaurants, and after many years is finally morphing back to a business model built upon quality instead of speed and price.

While I don't remember it all that well, I assume that this progression has been going on for some time, and was salient enough of a market movement for McDonalds to conceive the Arch Deluxe back in the mid nineties. I suspect that it was this market foresight is what has allowed McDonald's to strongly outperform pretty much every one of its competitors in recent years. This was long before Panera Bread, or Cosi, or Chipotle, and yet McDonald's was already aware of the market shifts that would give rise to those now-ubiquitous brands.

Today, we've got so many fast food options is actually a bit amazing. You can satisfy nearly any craving for any food type on the run. I'm sure that lots of people will decry this as further fuel to our expanding waistlines, but from a gourmet's perspective, I see it as the continued advancement of food in America. It's because of our culture that gives the US, bar none, the most diverse diet on Earth.

I'm sure that there are studies about this somewhere, but I don't think I need them. Use Google Earth to take a stroll down a street in London, then do the same thing in Boston or New York. The difference is stark. London has half the variety of foods that NY has, and that doesn't even include the limitless variety of ethnic foods available from street vendors.

But that's neither here nor there. Street vendors could be seen as the original fast food, but they were limited to high-density areas that could support a business based on walk-bys. No, American fast food exploded when the car culture reached from coast to coast, and decent roadways started extending out in more rural areas. It's actually stunning to think that way, but going back less than a human life presents a country that's startlingly different from today's. In a very, very short time we saw the mass acceptance of the car, car culture, highways, fast food, and urban sprawl. Go back just sixty years and these things didn't exist. Think about that. A sixty-year-old isn't even old, anymore, and yet when they were born, those things didn't exist.

Now, my lord, now we have so much freakin' fast food. We've got the big guys, McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and their ilk, but we also have countless smaller institutions such as In-N-Out. We've got alternatives to burgers that made their fortune as the "anti-burger" like Subway, and companies that made their fortune as the "anti-Subway," like Quiznos.

What's amazing is how much of a frontier this still is. It's tempting to almost think that we've gone as far as possible, that there is nowhere else to go in fast food. But finding how far efficiency can be pushed is an ongoing enterprise. Chiptole is only ten years old, and there are many small operations trying to figure out the sweet spot between efficiency, quality, and speed. Fresh City is basically fast food, but their Warwick location struggled for most of its life and finally succumbed early last year.

Moreover, I can only imagine the number of restaurants that are going under all across the country every year, all holding the possibility of becoming the next Chiptole. The next big hit might be Chinese fast food, or maybe falafel. All that might be needed is a good brand.

When I reviewed Chipotle, I called it the new fast food. I was wrong. The new fast food had been here for some time

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