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Understanding Amy's

Has a new era of fast food dawned?

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At Amy's Drive Thru, the shakes are frothy, the sauce is secret and the fries are golden and crispy. But the sprouts, they are not crunchy. At Amy's, there are no sprouts. And there is no "crunchy."

Since at least the 1970s, sprouts have been an essential, nay, stereotypical menu item for natural foods and vegetarian restaurants everywhere, a status cinematically cemented with Alvy Singer's order of "alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast" during a visit to L.A. in the 1977 comedy Annie Hall. Sprouts, piled high and wild on exotic, fringe foods like falafel, tempeh and tofu, meant health food, and vice versa.

In July, the privately held natural foods manufacturer Amy's Kitchen opened a drive-through vegetarian restaurant in Rohnert Park that's touted as the first of its kind. But as vegetarian food makes this historic sortie into mainstream fast food culture, sprouts are not coming along for the ride.

Amy's is creating a distinction between vegetarian food and fast food that happens to be vegetarian. Understanding that difference is key to understanding the company's appeal.

AS THE TOFU TURNS

During two visits to Amy's, I only had to glance at the entrance to see visitors pausing to take a photo as they walked up—big smiles on their faces, they'd clearly been planning to snap that pic. People love Amy's before they even walk through the door. Indeed, the restaurant's slogan is that it "runs on love."

If so, it's a well-oiled machine that runs on love. A battalion of workers, clad in fair-trade, organic cotton uniforms, run orders and blend shakes. Emerging from the back, managers deal with an equipment issue: clearly food service industry veterans, they've got that 1,000-burger stare.

It's a far cry from a memorable morning-to-afternoon I spent at a perfectly typical vegetarian cafe in the Sierra Foothills a few years back. When my friends and I ordered our food from the beatific young women staffing the joint, we were young men, angling to shake off well-deserved hangovers after a Halloween party. As we waited, we talked and grew weary of talk. But we dared not peek into the kitchen, knowing by long experience that any sign of impatience on the part of the customer in such sanctuaries of virtuous foods might earn a frosty look, if not a lecture. By the time our heaping plates of tempeh stir-fry and hummus arrived, we had reached middle age.

MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler

The dream of a happy union between fast food and healthy food is nothing new. Back in 1981, a restaurant with such ambitions opened in Santa Cruz. As a stick in the eye to the reigning fast-food giant, the owners called it McDharma's. The Clown, he didn't like that much. The Clown didn't think it was funny. Facing the overwhelming firepower of McDonald's litigation, Dharma's agreed to drop the "Mc" in 1988. They're still in business—at one location.

So it was looking like we'd get fusion energy before we got a real vegetarian fast-food restaurant, until Santa Monica–based Veggie Grill (in the sexy-sounding "fast casual" category") expanded into the North Bay in 2014.

CONVENIENCE, HOLD THE MEAT

Amy's Kitchen has always been about convenience, but up until 2015, they steered clear of retail. A major employer in Petaluma with about a thousand employees and plans for hundreds more, Amy's also runs manufacturing locations in Oregon, Idaho and the U.K. The company built a not so little empire out of a once-improbable concept: give consumers everything they get in the frozen food aisle, like convenience and familiar entrées, without the meat—and later, without the GMOs, the gluten; without the you-name-it. They've got it, if it's a "not." Because of Amy's, and other companies, vegetarians and vegans no longer need pretend to be satisfied with a plain bun with pickles and a side of potato salad at the barbecue—and, because of the quality and variety of Amy's products, may even have to endure less snickering over their contribution to the grill.

Andy and Rachel Berliner founded Amy's in 1987, around the time that I decided, at an impressionable young age, that meat was not natural, normal or kind. My parents were unfamiliar with a vegetarian diet, but then Amy's showed up with wholesome-sounding comfort foods like mac and cheese, enchiladas and pot pies.

After 20 years as a strict vegetarian, I changed my diet—but there's no point in trying to retrain my family on that fact. To this day, they still keep an Amy's or two in the freezer for me. And to be honest, whenever I'm feeling blue, my go-to choice among all comfort foods is Amy's "veggie loaf," a lentil loaf simulacrum of Salisbury steak, with sides of mashed potatoes and peas.

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