Food News

Start's Real Food Fast Is Just What a NYT Mag Writer Sought. Too Bad He Went to Taco Bell.

In a recent New York Times Magazine, Mark Bittman endorses Taco Bell's bean burrito. Well, not really, but he does point out that from a nutritional standpoint the "mushy beans in that soft tortilla" are a lot better than the alternatives. Bittman uses the anecdote to launch into an appraisal of new fast food restaurants cropping up in America, which are changing how we look at the drive-thru window.

"What I'd like," Bittman asks, "is a place that serves only good options, where you don't have to resist the junk food to order well, and where the food is real." Throughout the article he takes a look at a new crop of what he calls Good Fast Food restaurants like Veggie Grill, a 6-year-old Los Angeles-based chain with 18 locations, and Lyfe or, Love Your Food Everyday (shudder), which hopes to become the new Whole Foods of fast food.

Each example has a weakness though. Veggie Grill is entirely vegan and thus not appealing to the majority of Americans who demand burgers and chicken (not "chickin") sandwiches when they crave a quick meal. Lyfe has an average single meal price of $15, way too expensive for lower income groups to feed a family of four. Bittman wanted something that was more appealing to the mainstream that also came in at a lower price point. What's crazy is how close he came to finding just that.

The aforementioned bean burrito from the Taco Bell al fresco menu was ordered in Terminal C at Dallas/Fort Worth. Bittman flew across the county and had a layover just over 20 miles away from a restaurant that met his every criteria -- even the lower ticket cost.

You remember Start, the fast food restaurant opened by Erin McKool which promises real food, fast? We reviewed them last year and noted a delicious menu filled with responsibly sourced ingredients. The Dallas Morning News and D Magazine agreed. Everyone seems keen on the place. I wish Bittman had heard about the restaurant while working on his article. After all, the average ticket price at Start is $9.50, according to McKool.

Of course, Start is a single location that's just getting off the ground. It's hardly on anyone's radar outside the loop (well, except for the folks behind the Supersize vs Superskiny documentary), so I called McKool to see how her expansion plans were coming.

When she first opened Start, a second location was at the front of her mind, but she had hoped to take her time. "Our business plan was to open a second location after the first had operated for two years," McKool said. She planned to use the time to continue to iron out the kinks and hone the operation of her first restaurant. But McKool noticed Bittman's article too. "It's encouraging and it frightens me at the same time," she said, noting many of her friends sent her the article after noting the similarities in what Bittman was looking for and what Start provides.

Certainly the mention of similar concepts spreading on the coasts has reinvigorated her efforts, but finding a suitable location has been difficult. "A lot of similar restaurants are competing for this same kind of space," she said, noting requirements for land, parking and the layout necessary for a drive-thru window. A big box-restaurant took the most recently desired, next location and it took her more than a year and a half just to find her first.

She's closer though. McKool was delivering an offer on a Lemmon Avenue location Friday. She want's to try on one more Start within Dallas proper before she starts to push her concept outside the loop. Hopefully her restaurant will continue to expand while more business owners realize a growing reality -- there's real money to be made in real food fast.

Here's the episode of Supersize vs Superskiny. While it's a little entertaining to watch insufferable Brits offer commentary on the eating habits and obesity problems of Americans, skip ahead to 40:30 if you want to see their take on Start.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz