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(Published: 2008-03-24)

You know the old adage: "Fast, fine, or cheap; you can have any two." That used to hold true for food. Fast food is cheap, and usually not that good for you. Fine food is slow and seldom comes cheap….and isn't always that good for you either. But times are changing.

Fast Fine is emerging as a new food category, one that just might reframe the traditional fast food business model the same way that Target redefined the discount retail arena and became known as "the upscale discounter.” Why else would one of the world's best chefs open a fast food chain?

"To show us how it should be done," says Ferran' Adria' of El Bulli, a world-renowned restaurant on a breezy bay North of Barcelona. With tables available for approximately 8,000 patrons during a limited season, their waiting list generally exceeds 400,000 people! If one does manage to secure a table, the size of the check will leave all but the wealthiest in shock.

Adria' is out to show the food world that fast can be fine, and inexpensive. Fast Good is his latest project, with outlets in Spain, Chile, and Mexico. He uses the exact same ingredients as El Bulli. Salads are baby rocket (arugula) and dandelion greens, Iberico ham is used for sandwiches, burgers are made from non-frozen hormone-free veal and served on buns made fresh daily on the premises. French fries are hand-cut and cooked in extra virgin olive oil. Fast Good delivers quality fresh local ingredients (no preservatives), prepared to order, and serves it up in a modern café setting with great seating, good lighting, and even special tablecloths. The average check is about $15 USD.

That sounds like a recipe for success, and you'd think that some stateside visionary would pick up on the trend. Come to think of it, someone has. When Steve Ells opened his first Chipotle in Denver, his idea was to start a fast food restaurant and serve "food with integrity," in a hip setting. If that idea took off, he figured he might eventually make enough money to open a 'real' restaurant.

He's a millionaire many times over now, and still opening Chipotles. Like Fast Good, his fast fine approach ensures that only the best quality ingredients are used (local, wherever possible, including naturally raised meats, organic beans, and hormone free dairy). Everything is prepared to the customer's specifications and served in a hip, comfortable, relaxing yet energetic setting, where even the music is great.

There are others experimenting with this new category as well. At the Minneapolis airport we have a Wolfgang Puck Café Jr., an express concept that serves brick oven gourmet pizzas and great salads. Not quite Spago quality, but light years beyond the "slice of pizza to go.”

This is all happening at a time when traditional fine food restaurants are practicing "cutback cuisine” in order to survive. Soaring food costs, a weak dollar, and a crunching economy are causing chefs to substitute lesser cuts of meats, rework recipes, trim portions, and put more pasta on the menu, just to keep prices palatable.

For every trend there's a countertrend. Traditional fast food restaurants are putting healthier options on their menus, upgrading their coffee selections (McDonalds and Dunkin' Donuts), and improving their ambience. The assumption is that both the white tablecloth crowd and Starbucks diehards will eventually feel a pinch in their wallets and begin to trade down to fast food.

The New York Times recently featured an article about a McDonalds franchisee in Hayward Heights, CA that is going upscale in their décor, using feng shui to provide a more 'zen' fast food experience. Walls are curved, red accents are everywhere, vases filled with bamboo line the vestry, and intimate curved booths beckon. Two waterfalls provide tranquility, and even the doors swing open and shut in opposite directions, all in the name of keeping luck within the restaurant.

If the economy keeps going the way has been going, we're going to need all the luck and feng shui serenity we can get to withstand the consequences. That, and a lot more fast, fine, and cheap food.

Bon appetit!

Adria's Fast Good


Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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