Organic foods gain in fast casual eating

From the day Amy’s Drive Thru opened on July 20, the turnout for the organic and vegan fast food restaurant in Rohnert Park, California, has been extraordinary. Although the new eatery began with a soft opening, customers waited hours its first days. The volume was many times more than Amy’s had anticipated.

Organic offerings in fast casual eating establishments are a growing trend. And who better to lead it than Amy’s Kitchen, cofounded by Rachel and Andy Berliner in their house and barn in 1987 after they saw a need for good quality frozen meals. In 1999, they added a grocery line and the awards began piling up— among them Foodie Awards from the Vegetarian Times and a Good Housekeeping award for best vegetable pizza. 

“We knew from the popularity of Amy’s Kitchen foods that there is a demand for foods cooked with organic ingredients. It is such a labor of love for us, so we are delighted that the interest is there,” says Andy Berliner. After testing over 1,000 veggie recipes, the fast food restaurant offers veggie burgers, burritos and burrito bowls, three types of both mac and cheese and pizza, along with organic chili, fries and organic salads. Menu items include vegan and gluten-free options.


clientele driven by millennials

Amy’s Kitchen wanted to create a drive thru that would appeal to a range of people of all ages, and that’s what they’re seeing. 


“Customers, especially Millennials, want to know where their food comes from and how it is prepared… Restaurants that find a way to add organic will win.”

- Cherryh Butler, Managing Editor of Fast.Casual.com 


Matt Cohen, a professional photographer who lives in Napa, was an early visitor. Cohen has been a vegetarian for 20 years, and he and his wife eat out about five times each week. He says living in California makes finding vegetarian options easier, and he tries to buy organic. So when he read about Amy’s new endeavor, he and his wife made the 45-minute trek to try it out.

“We actually only spent $22 at Amy's, and got more food than we could eat. Everything we tried was great,” he says. At Amy’s, one single and one double veggie patty with cheese cost $2.99 and 4.29 respectively, with fries another $2.49.

As in retail, the trend for organic offerings in fast food is boosted by Millennials, the generation of about 75 million in the U.S. who were born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s.  According to a report by The Hartman Group, Millennials don’t scoff at $12 for a premium burger meal, whether it’s grass-fed, organic or gluten-free. While they visit traditional quick service restaurants (QSRs) such as McDonalds and Subways less than other age groups, the report said that fast casual is something most Millennials do, stating that for Millennials, “Things you do cost money. And it just doesn’t get much simpler than that.”


More organic in food service

Whether it’s gluten-free or organic, consumers are seeking healthier options and are increasingly getting their desires met at the retail level. They take this awareness with them when they eat out. As a result, the entire food service industry—restaurants, hotels, hospitality, and health care—has been waking up to offering organic options. Fast casual dining is part of that trend, says Keith Soucy, Channel Account Manager for UNFI, who has worked in the natural foods industry for over 25 years. UNFI is the distributor that supplies Amy’s Drive Thru.

Soucy said increasing consumer demand for organic food in fast casual dining is driven by growing awareness of practices used in the food supply chain for households with children and younger generations. “More people have a greater interest in where their food comes. That is working well for farmers who grow organic,” says Soucy, who adds the drive for gluten-free and buying local also are part of that trend.


Sourcing issues

Organic grains, fruits, and vegetables are leading the way for organic trends in fast-casual, while organic protein is slower, says Soucy.

However, Elevation Burger—the first organic burger chain in the United States—has proven that organic, grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef can be sourced and marketed successfully in fast-casual settings. As one of the largest buyers and sellers of organic beef in the restaurant category, it has made a commitment with organic cattle producers that, in turn, has helped provide a reliable supply.

Cherryh Butler, Managing Editor of Fast.Casual.com, says demand for organic and farm-to-table is a huge trend in fast casual right now. “Customers, especially Millennials, want to know where their food comes from and how it is prepared. This is easier for smaller restaurants because they don't have to deal with as many supply chain issues as larger brands. Restaurants that find a way to add organic to menus will win if they also market it,” she said.

At Amy’s, local sourcing is important. Their salad greens travel 12 miles, from Bloomfield Organics, while pasture-based farms in Sonoma County provide the milk for milkshakes. Fair Trade coffee comes from nearby family-run Coast Roast Coffee. Sourcing the organic produce is always a challenge, with seasonal issues, crop issues, and uncontrollable factors impacting availability. “For instance, we use fresh lemons for our fresh-squeezed, housemade lemonade, and it’s just tough to get good, juicy, organic lemons all the time,” says Berliner.

Still, management for Amy’s Drive Thru hopes to expand in time with additional sites. Already underway are efforts for offering breakfast and experiments with additional recipes.

“We are really focusing on getting this one up and running smoothly. We’d love to expand, and the demand we are seeing and requests for Amy’s Drive Thrus in other states, and even other countries, have been phenomenal,” Berliner adds. //

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