A few of Erin McKool's friends thought the idea was a mistake. Drive-thrus were for McDonald's and Taco Cabana, not an eco-friendly health-food start-up. The image of a Chevy Suburban saddled up to a takeout window evoked cheap burgers, soggy fries and fatness, which was the antithesis of Start. The new restaurant should keep up appearances.
McKool was adamant, though. The window clearly differentiated her proposed restaurant from other health-food places in the area. Wholesome smoothies, wraps and fresh salads were available all over Dallas, but they required parking your car. Busy families needed a more flexible option — one that didn't require 10 minutes of fumbling with a Graco car seat, a diaper bag and two kids towed on a leash. What she didn't know was that finding a suitable property for the restaurant would take nearly 18 months.
Start started like many failed restaurants do. McKool was a capable home cook who fantasized about opening a quiet neighborhood cafe. She wanted to run one of those spots where customers are on a first-name basis and the chef already knows that Herb from down the street prefers his bacon extra crispy. McKool wasn't interested in opening another failed restaurant, and she was willing to decouple practicality and good business sense from romance in order to make her idea profitable.
She poured herself into books, reading Howard Schultz's tome about building a Starbucks empire one cup at a time, and Danny Meyer's take on the importance of good service in growing his Shake Shack chain. She read Fast Food Nation to learn about her competition, their inferior ingredients and poor treatment of employees. She talked out ideas with more friends and her husband and laid out a high-level outline for what Start would someday become.
Plan B helped her color in the rough sketch. The group responsible for the design of Oak, Bolsa and other popular Dallas restaurants drew up an improved logo and picked out lighting fixtures, chairs and other furniture made from recycled materials. When McKool finally found the right property, a dusty parking lot that used to house a pool hall, they helped her realize the architecture she says is inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. On August 8, when she finally opened the doors, Start was tricked out with a stylish dining room and a fedora-clad staff ready to greet customers with a smile.
Frank LaRocca warned McKool to be patient. LaRocca was a district manager with Einstein Bagels, brought in to help Start get off the ground. He told McKool new businesses take time to build patronage from a public that doesn't understand, or isn't aware of, a new concept. At least in Start's case, LaRocca was wrong.
Within a few days the drive-thru line was wrapped around the building during lunch and dinner services as an overtaxed kitchen tried to keep up with orders. The line of cars competed for space with customers attempting to park to dine in, and the lot was such a mess McKool had to hire off-duty cops to shoehorn SUVs into tight spots.
When her lot wasn't a problem, kitchen supplies were. "They'd completely wipe us out," McKool said, admitting she'd underestimated demand. They ended up closing the restaurant from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. so cooks could prep and stage for the next rush. To speed the drive-thru line they had to reconfigure the kitchen, effectively doubling production. Opening a fast-food restaurant turned out to be hard work. Opening one that promised real food fast was harder.
Start's menu is based on scratch ingredients and items cooked to order. While the buns, tortillas and other staples are brought in from vendors like Empire Bakery and Luna's Tortillas, condiments are made on site, burgers are hand-formed, and when you order a breakfast sandwich on your way to the office in the morning, your eggs are cooked within minutes.
Those eggs were another point of contention for McKool. Her friends and family pointed out that the loose scramble she employed fell out of the breakfast sandwiches and potentially into someone's lap. They suggested she fry her eggs in ring molds like the other fast food places so the eggs stay in place. McKool quickly sloughed off the advice. She'd been to Europe and ate at restaurants that scrambled their eggs into a dense, custard-like consistency. If her customers wanted an egg that looked and tasted like a hockey puck, they had plenty of places to go. Freshly pressed khakis be damned, McKool wanted her eggs to taste good. Her persistence is responsible for one of the most delicious breakfast burritos served in Dallas.
Forget the dry, rubbery scramble that fills most tortillas in a thoughtless breakfast ensemble. Start's eggs weep moisture, and are rich and full of flavor. They come from Vital Farms, the same source that many upper-crust restaurants use for fancy soufflés, while sharp cheddar cheese and crunchy, salty bacon round out a burrito that's worth the $4 price tag. The oatmeal has a hefty chew and a nutty flavor echoed in a garnish of pecans and dried fruit, and the coffee is rich and black.
Other dishes aren't as decadent. A breakfast sandwich made from silver-dollar pancakes isn't as fun to eat, even if it's a fun idea. The veggie patty is dry and the pancakes are drier, but you can imagine young kids making a mess with the maple syrup dipping cup and not realizing their sandwich is pork-free.
The good intentions of a veggie burger served at lunch, though, are a little harder to disguise. Vegetables, beans, quinoa and almonds form a patty that's moist on its own but gets lost in a dense, dry whole-grain bun. Buttermilk dressing lends some moisture, but while this sandwich may appeal to vegetarians, it's not going to convert a steadfast carnivore.
Thankfully, there are beef versions. They start with the standard "Better Burger," but why order that when a version so much more mischievous is available just down the menu? The "Badder Burger" adds melted cheddar, crunchy bacon and silky avocado to lettuce, onion and tomato for just two dollars more. The whole-grain bun feels a little toothy, but the fatty toppings fill out the bread, resulting in a burger that eats like a self-indulgence but eschews the typical side-car full of guilt. The whole thing comes together in a way that tastes fresh and bright and significantly reduces the self-loathing.
The same can be said for most of the menu at Start. Wraps and salads boast crisp vegetables, fresh dressings and meats that taste clean and home-cooked, so long as you grew up with a mother obsessed with lean proteins and organic ingredients.
McKool is a mother of one who's frequently looking for ways to improve her real-food-fast concept. She has hired a night crew to do her prep from 10 p.m. till dawn and now keeps the restaurant open though the midday lull. She listens to and incorporates customer feedback, and she's looking for new meat sources to handle her increasing demand.
Start goes through 300 pounds of beef a week and hundreds of buns a day as a constant barrage of cars pummel her drive-thru window all day long. For the most part, they're driving away with food that's significantly better than what's available at most fast-food chains.
While sweet-potato tater tots are soft and gooey, the white-potato versions are good. Start has no deep fryer, so the tots are baked on sheet pans, which keeps fat to a minimum. Many ingredients lean toward healthfulness without going too far. That's the idea behind the name. McKool wants to give her customers a way to begin to make healthy decisions without taking the whole-grain-low-fat mantra to excess. The muffins for breakfast sandwiches, for instance, are made from a mix of white and wheat flour, so they pack more nutrients but don't taste like a grain bin.
As you bite into one of those paper-wrapped muffins stuffed with organic peanut butter, ripe bananas and sticky honey, you might think it's almost too simple. Why would someone pay four bucks for something they could easily make at home in seconds? And as a dark blue SUV pulls out of the drive-thru and onto Greenville Avenue the answer becomes obvious. Many customers simply don't have the desire — or, these days, the time — and Erin McKool is ready to serve them.
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