Start Owner Erin McKool Is Planning a Fast-Food Revolution (Interview)

Plotting her next Start outpost.
Plotting her next Start outpost.
Kevin Marple

There is culinary innovation happening on all levels, especially in the world of fast-casual concepts that seek to serve a healthier product to a discerning clientele. That's why we've seen spots like LYFE Kitchen, SNAP Kitchen, and others offer chef-driven food without all the butter and cream of the fine-dining world.

At Start, Erin McKool took the idea of healthy, convenient food to the next level. With her two "slow food served fast" restaurants in Dallas, she's doing a lot to change the perception that fast food has to be unhealthy. I sat down to talk with McKool about how she went from working in law to owning a restaurant, her approach to cooking healthy food, and what the future looks like for this fledgling empire of drive-thru healthy joints.

Can you talk about your trajectory. It seems like a crazy trip from law school to restaurateur. I don't have any kind of culinary background. I was actually an attorney before I decided to start a restaurant, but I always loved food. My stepdad is probably the person who got me into gourmet food and really thinking about quality food. When he married my mom, he cooked all this incredible food and it really kind of opened my eyes. I'm from East Tennessee, and there just wasn't anything special going on food-wise. There is in Nashville and Knoxville, but not where I was.

From there, I started experimenting. I love to entertain, that's probably how I got really interested in cooking at first. I was always thinking about what I was going to cook for my guests and how to present it to them beautifully. That probably started in my 20s, when I was in law school we would have parties and I loved to cook. Fast forward to me working a job and being pregnant, I thought it would be a good time to open a little cafe. Start is not what I had in mind originally. The first idea was a coffee shop that would maybe have some sandwiches, then I considered a breakfast spot and a very specialized dinner spot. But we live in a city that has more restaurants per capita than anywhere else, so it was a little bit daunting.

How did you land on a fast food-style concept? When I left the practice of law and stayed at home with my son, it was way more intense than I expected. It took me two years to land on a concept that there was no competition for in this city. I'm going to be figuring things out as I go along, and I need to have that sweet spot where we don't have a lot of competition because Dallas can be fickle. It became painfully obvious to me that there was no drive-thru that was serving what I would serve at home.

You can go to McDonald's or whatever and find low-calorie items, but you can't get quality food. Whole Foods is really popular right now and other natural food restaurants and grocery stores were popping up, and people seemed ready for it. The costs started to go down, and that was really important because it would have been cost-prohibitive ten years ago. I was really stuck on the idea of having a drive-thru, though. There were plenty of places to get healthy food, but you had to park your car and get your kids out and go in. My instinct told me that it would give me extra time to figure things out because people will put up with so much to not have to get out of their cars. Look at Starbucks. People will wait ten or twenty minutes in the drive-thru at Starbucks just to avoid getting out of their cars. I thought that would get us through the learning curve.

Do you think you would have fared better with a culinary degree? Or does that really matter now? I would never underestimate the value of a culinary degree, honestly. I wish I had one when we first opened Start. We were about six weeks in, and I had a really qualified chef friend come in and I put things in front of him and he was really helpful. He gave me some thoughts about how to improve the efficiency of the line. He tried about twenty dishes, and he gave me some tweaks. They were small things, like adding lemon zest to our quinoa salad. It just brightened it up.

If you don't have that culinary background, it's hard to come into a commercial kitchen and make your recipes work. I would come in and try to train my staff on how to make our chocolate quinoa cake, and it would fall every single time. It turned out that I was overbeating the eggs, which I learned later, but I would have known that immediately if I had a culinary education. I did get online quite a bit to learn about how to do things better, but I would have wasted very little product if I had just known that. If I ever open a different type of concept, I will definitely have a chef on board. You learn by trial and error, but it's better to have some training.

People know they have to eat better, but we don't really love talking about healthy food. Have you found that people come here and don't expect it to be as good as it is, because "healthy food" is so often, well, gross? Absolutely. My husband is probably the biggest example of that. He doesn't really gravitate toward healthy food, and Start is always where he wants to eat. It's usually me who's had enough of it that week. He thinks that our sweets are amazing, he doesn't find anything "healthy tasting" about it. There are a lot of people like him who are really surprised that it is so good. We're not trying to cut calories though, we're focusing on good ingredients.

Healthy has different meanings for different people, and for me that means putting the best ingredients into our bodies as possible. I have certain standards that are absolutes here. We don't do artificial trans fats or food colorings. No corn syrup is allowed, and all of our butter, eggs, milk, and soy are always organic. Butter isn't healthy if you're watching caloric intake, but if you're going to eat butter, have it be as clean as possible.

It seems like it would be damn near impossible to serve quality food like this and be really constrained to low-fat, low-calorie ingredients. We didn't want to do that here, and the biggest complaint that we get is that our food does have too many calories. People will get online and look at the menu and see that the quinoa salad isn't a particularly low-calorie dish. From the very beginning, I wanted to be a start in the right direction of clean healthy eating, but I wanted to appeal to the masses. I didn't want to be a vegan restaurant or a gluten-free restaurant. Sometimes, though, I don't think people understand what we do because we have so many gluten-free offerings. We are as gluten free as every other restaurant that says that, we just haven't put it at the forefront. If someone is trying to eat really clean, I want their spouse to be interested in eating here too, because they can have a burger or whatever. It is hard to do both, so we wanted to have healthy junk food. Sometimes you just want to dip a tater tot in some ketchup, you know?   Has the learning curve been interesting for the people who come into the restaurant? Do people get it? We don't get that anymore, but we did in the beginning. Because we had a drive-thru, people really did think that we were like a Wendy's or something like that. People weren't happy that things took as long as they did, and how expensive they were. They were expecting to get a hamburger for a couple of bucks, but we can't do that. We're using all grass-fed, local beef that is expensive, we're making our mayo in-house with organic eggs, and we get our buns from Village Baking Co. It's really not fast food. It's slow food served as fast as possible.

Since the menu at Start is so driven by your own style of home cooking, how would you describe it? It depends on what I'm in the mood for. I don't cook really exotic food. I do try to cook pretty healthy, especially because my husband really doesn't want a bunch of cake and pasta around. Tonight, I'm cooking fettucine alfredo with spiralized zucchini and a sauce made of cashew cream. What's going on with my family and what they like also influences that, but I don't usually create really complicated meals. It's usually pretty straightforward. I would say pretty American, altogether.

Are your kids down with eating all that healthy food? Plenty of seven year olds live on chicken nuggets. I don't think that my son really knows that this is healthy food. His favorite is the chocolate cake, and he doesn't know that it's full of quinoa and dark chocolate, he just knows it tastes good. This is his favorite hamburger, too. He does know occasionally that I'll say that I don't want him to eat something with artificial color or something. I'm not a control freak about that, though, there's a time and season for everything. Does he ever eat M&Ms? Sure. If he's out with his friends, I don't want him to preach to people. When he was 3 years old, he was out at a playdate and told someone that his Mom said that candy was poison. I don't think I ever actually said that, but I've probably backed off because of that. Not everyone shares my same philosophy.

It seems like this place is really rooted in the idea of balance, which is actually pretty hard to achieve. You're either being militant and living on kale, or free-for-all eating anything fried. I like to think that I've achieved balance in my life, and that's what I want for everyone else. We have the burgers and the tater tots, but we also have the salads and the gluten-free wrap. I like to splurge and eat at good restaurants just like everyone else, but that doesn't mean I should do that every day. I'm not going to always avoid all fried foods. Our menu sort of reflects that, even though we don't have anything that is deep fat fried. We have sweets and pancakes with syrup. It's just that it's 100% maple syrup infused with vanilla bean. We have the best bacon, too. I didn't eat bacon from the time I was 14 years old until I started with Start, and now I eat it every week. So if you're going to have a cheeseburger, at least have the burger with grass-fed beef and bacon with no nitrates. Have the mayo, but try our better version.

What does the future look like for Start? Do you already have plans in the works for new restaurants?

I always hear people ask us to bring Start to the places where they live. I really want to maximize the time that we have being the only place like this in the market. We are looking for a place for our third restaurant, and we're hearing a lot about Frisco and McKinney, actually. It would be nice to have another store where we're able to touch all three of those communities. We'd like to get a third restaurant open, and then open a commissary kitchen to provide consistency on some things, like our salad dressings and sauces.

I'd also really like to see more restaurants like this to compete with us. Maybe not right away, but I really want to see fast food change. I want to see maybe ethnic concepts that are fresh and healthy and offer a drive-thru. There are so many great sit-down places in Dallas like that, but nothing that's fast and quick.

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