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CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Let's face it, we're fat. Two out of every three Americans are either overweight or obese. And many say the culprit is fast food. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader calls the double cheeseburger a weapon of mass destruction. A growing number of consumers have seemingly gotten the message from the U.S Surgeon general that the supersizing of America is a public health hazard. Still, the hamburger reigns supreme at Burger King, MacDonald's and the like. But a new breed of so-called "healthy fast food" restaurants is shaking up the nation's food chain. Bruce Gellerman has our story.
GELLERMAN: Go to a typical fast food restaurant and you might find a poster of a colonel or a plastic clown greeting you. But visit O'Naturals and it's possible you'll be met at the door by president and chief executive officer Mac McCabe.
GELLERMAN: Do you always greet people at the door?
MCCABE: Yeah. You know, you're only as good as your next customer, and you can have a great idea for a restaurant, but if the customer doesn't have a great time there, they won't come back.
GELLERMAN: O'Natural's idea is to create a chain of all natural, organic "fast casual" restaurants. Right now it's the first and only all-organic chain in the nation. Admittedly, O'Naturals is nothing more than a single sesame on a huge bun. There are only 4 O'Naturals. They're all in New England. McDonald's, by comparison, has 13,000 in the United States alone and serves millions of customers a day. But Mac McCabe sees those customers as naturals...for O'Natural.
MCCABE: You know, early on people would say, oh it's a vegetarian restaurant. It's like, no it's a natural and organic restaurant.
GELLERMAN: But when somebody drives in ? they don't know this place ? and you say vegan, you're going to scare them to death.
MCCABE: Yes, but it's sitting right next to a steak sandwich.
GELLERMAN: That's a steak sandwich made from free range beef. It's made with organic whole wheat flat bread baked right before your eyes. O'Natural's doesn't serve french fries ? it serves organic heirloom roasted potatoes. There is bleu cheese, there's brie. That's not your typical fast food fare. Nor are Asian style noodles, or wild salmon, or bison burgers. The bison are harvested on Nature Conservancy land by Native Americans.
This may all sound like a throw back to the 60's, but O'Naturals is anything but a hippie fast food fantasy. This is a consumer-tested business ? from vegan soup to organic nuts.
HIRSCHBERG: I think part of what set out to do here is redefine what fast food is all about.
GELLERMAN: Gary Hirschberg came up with the concept for O'Naturals. He's a legend in organic food circles. Hirschberg started out 20 years ago with 5 cows and an idea. Today, his Stonyfield Farm company is the largest organic yogurt company in the world. Hirschberg wants to apply the same principles to create a chain of healthy fast food restaurants.
HIRSCHBERG: I'm not going to tell you what's healthy for you, but I am going to tell you that by being organic, there is the absence of bad stuff. I'm going to guarantee you that every drop of dairy in this place is made from cows who are not injected with synthetic hormones. I can tell you that every bite of bread is going to be pure organic.
And you know, a lot of people say organic isn't proven, but the reality is it's chemicals that aren't proven
GELLERMAN : The O'Naturals concept doesn't stop with food. It includes the restaurants. This one in Acton, Massachusetts has brown leather couches and wood chairs and table. Hirschberg says the restaurants are environmental statements.
HIRSCHBERG: It's very important that the experience be green. The panels here is post harvest wheat chaff. We even have plastics here, on the tables that are made from recycled yogurt containers. We have all recycled materials. All the wood in the place. The doors and windows are taken from an old Naval air station ? swords into plowshares I guess.
GELLERMAN: It's an ambitious plan but it's not unprecedented. Healthy fast food restaurants have been tried before. In the 1980s there was D'lites. The lite burger chain quickly grew to a hundred units. Then the company went belly up. McDonald's came out with it's McLean Deluxe a few years ago ? that was a low-cal burger. It, too, was a belly flop. So were Taco Bell's recent Border-lite offerings.
Robin Lee Allen is an editor at "Nation's Restaurant News," a trade publication that follows the fast food industry.
LEE ALLEN: The biggest problem is that consumers say they want one thing and then they choose not to buy it when it's available. And it's the perception, whether it's right or wrong, that if things that are more "healthful," they do not taste as good as things that come out of the deep fryer or come out laden with chocolate sauce.
GELLERMAN: But Robin Lee Allen says tastes and demographics are changing. Aging boomers want more than a burger these days. They're increasingly health conscious, and their kids are more sophisticated about food. It's a changing landscape, with more fast food restaurants that cater to health conscious consumers
[SOUND OF BLENDER]
GELLERMAN: Here at Fresh City in Newton, Massachusetts they're whipping up a Berry Best smoothie. That's a blend of strawberries and blueberries. I go for one with a so-called Stress Reducer. That adds ginseng, bee pollen and calcium to the mix.
Bruce Reinstein and his brother built their first Fresh City a few years ago. Now there are 11. Like O'Naturals, Fresh City serves up wraps, sandwiches, salads and stir-fries. It even has miso. Bruce Reinstein says the food at Fresh City is fresh, but it's not organic.
REINSTEIN: You know, it's nice to have healthy foods, but more importantly it's nice to give people the options to what they want. Because people want to eat healthy but a lot of people want to feel they're eating healthy, and it's really up to them to decide what sauce, do they want sesame noodles on their wrap, or do they want simple jasmine rice. It's really their choice.
GELLERMAN: But it can be difficult to choose the healthy from the potentially harmful. Fresh City does have many low cal, low fat offerings, but its Teriyaki wrap, while fresh, has as much fat as a Big Mac and nearly twice the calories.
LEE ALLEN: Because something is fresher doesn't mean it's necessarily more healthful.
GELLERMAN: Again, "Nation's Restaurant News" editor Robin Lee Allen.
LEE ALLEN: I think what happens is that people get confused between ? you're talking about two different things ?..one side is what's more healthful, what's low fat, what's lower in calories, lower in sodium, lower in cholesterol ? and what's fresh. I mean you can have something that is fresh that is not necessarily low in calories.
GELLERMAN: Likewise you can have something that is organic that's not necessarily low in calories. Still, public preferences are changing. Customers are telling the fast food industry that fast is no longer enough. They want their food fresh, healthy, and even organic. You can see it in the proliferation of new "good for you chains:" Healthy Bites Grill and Health Express. And you can see it in the reaction of McDonald's, Wendy's, Taco Bell and other fast food giants.
McDonald's recently started serving a new line of salads and low-fat yogurt. And it's entered a licensing agreement with Fresh City. McDonald's now runs 6 Fresh City outlets. What's more, McDonald's is phasing out the use of antibiotics in its meat and trans-fatty acids in its fried foods.
Slowly, but surely, the fast food chains are changing their menus, and the nation's food chain as well. Before, it didn't matter so much what kinds of ketchup, cheese, and buns McDonald's bought from its suppliers. Now it does, according to O'Natural's Gary Hirschberg.
HIRSCHBERG: When I look at who has now launched organic in the last few year, it's brands like Frito Lay, Heinz, Kraft. I assure you these folks are not coming to organic because they've suddenly had a religious experience. This is because consumers are asking for this stuff. We're all reading labels.
GELLERMAN: Organics is now a $13 billion a year industry. It's almost tripled in size in the past 3 years. And Hirschberg says the future is just as bright.
HIRSCHBERG: I think there's no question we're going to spawn a whole new generation of restaurants. But as companies like O'Naturals grow, we will force the McDonald's, the Burger Kings the Wendys to come to us. And frankly, they're here. You'll see them walking through and taking pictures, and frankly we welcome them.
GELLERMAN: But they may have to stand in line. The average O'Natural's restaurant makes more money than the average McDonald's. If the trend continues, Hirschberg and his O'Natural chain could, one day, eat McDonald's lunch.
For Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.
CURWOOD: In the interest of full disclosure, one of the subjects of the healthy fast food story is the CEO of Stonyfield Farm, an underwriter of Living on Earth. Our story was independently edited by Ken Bader.