Nothing works as an example of poor eating quite like fast food joints. They poison the body, warp the mind, and are more ubiquitous than mailboxes. But in this great city of New York – where anything is possible – there’s a small but growing community of fast food restaurants that are trying to turn things around. Energy Kitchen and Freshii are two such places. In spite of the much-needed niche they’re filling, they both face serious uphill battles taking on the big dogs of fast food. Let’s see if their messages are compelling enough to draw converts.
Energy Kitchen, opened by Anthony Leone in 2003, was created to give New Yorkers what they didn’t yet have: access to a quick meal that could still be healthy. Apparently, Leone couldn’t stand being helplessly subjected to fat and sugar-laden food when eating on the go. As a result, he literally made it impossible to feel guilty ordering at his place: all dishes are kept to under 500 calories, everything is baked, grilled or steamed, and all the soda is diet. “There’s no temptation in our store,” Leone reassures us, “you can’t mess it up.”
I’ve eaten at Energy Kitchen a few times (there’s a location right around the corner from my work), and I have to say it’s a pretty nice experience. When you walk in, everything seems ultra clean: almost every visible surface is white and shiny, there’s minimal decoration, bright lights, and a very organized, very sterile prep station behind the registers. One look at the menu and you know your bowels will be just as spotless. Low calorie counts pop at every listing and a wall of Pirate’s Booty flanks the counter.
So far, I’ve gotten a couple wraps, some smoothies, and their signature bison burger. Everything tasted great (especially the smoothies) and while their entrees were on the modest side, they weren’t skimpy either. All in all, Energy Kitchen held their end of the bargain: they gave me a delicious meal quickly and completely without guilt.
Still, for as on point as it is, Energy Kitchen rubs me the wrong way. My main beef isn’t in the execution, but the focus: they’re too caught up in what they’re not. They’re not your typical fast food, they’re not over 500 calories, they don’t have real soda or real chips. If they’re really so steadfast on being healthy and going against the grain, why have soda at all? Why play into big fast food’s game?
The thing is, this mentality was there from the very start. Anthony Leone created Energy Kitchen as a reaction to the typical fast food restaurant. Unfortunately, it seems like he’s still playing the role of the younger brother, basing all the company’s decisions on whatever the older guys don’t do. And while all this still makes for a tasty and nutritious lunch, it forces you to focus on the calories rather than the food. That’s not eating goodly.
Now let’s jump to Freshii. Freshii was founded by Matthew Corrin in 2005 under the original name, “Lettuce Eatery”. With a menu of build-your-own salads and sandwiches and a crack staff of well dressed twenty-somethings to do it, it quickly became a hit in its native Toronto. Before long, dozens of franchised locations had invaded the states.
I personally stumbled upon my first Freshii a couple days ago and was pretty blown away. The look of the restaurant was appropriately modern: the same hip minimalism of Energy Kitchen with just little more color. But Freshii’s real draw was its philosophy, impossible to ignore thanks to a huge mural painted on the wall. In bold white letters it read:
let’s eat without regret.
let’s love cucumbers. let’s embrace mushrooms.
let’s throw caution to the wind and order the onions.
let’s try new things. let’s try unlikely combos.
let’s not eat and run. let’s eat and sit.
let’s take the whole lunch hour. let’s slow down.
let’s enjoy. let’s be good to the earth.
let’s let the eart be good to us.
let’s eat and celebrate.
let’s get freshii.
There it was, clear as day. Embracing the experience of eating, breaking through comfort zones, giving food the attention it deserves, sharing mealtime with others – it’s all there. And though the menu lacked the calorie-count stamps of approval, it was clear that Freshii’s food was as healthy as its values. I walked by on my way to work, so I went for the spinach and goat cheese breakfast wrap… seriously tasty (though I am a sucker for goat cheese).
I have to say, I’m so thankful for running into Freshii – it filled me with energy and opened my eyes to what the future of American (and Canadian) eating can be. Today it may just be an eccentric outsider in the fast food world, but it serves as a crucial prototype for what others can become. As for Energy Kitchen, there’s no doubt it’s made some serious and much needed improvements to the old ways of fast food. Still, without the proper philosophical foundation, the potential to grow – and the potential for others to adopt its model – is very limited. Hopefully it can learn from Freshii and other restaurants that embrace the many joys of eating rather than simply denounce its dangers.