Photo: Sven Andersson, Flickr
Is America getting burger fatigue? Betting that the market for choices beyond super-sized fries will continue to grow, two of the minds behind America's biggest fast-food chain are launching a healthy, "fast-casual" restaurant concept. Mike Roberts and Mike Donahue, former McDonald's executives, have plans to open a chain tentatively called "Stephanie's," and they're not thinking small: The initial goal is to open as many as 250 locations in five years' time, according to Advertising Age.
The duo (backed by entrepreneur Steve Sidwell) wants to skew healthy, with planned menu items like apple-cinnamon steel-cut oats and pita pockets for breakfast, and smoked-chicken sweet pea soup and pork-and-sweet potato kabobs for lunch and dinner. Prices would start around $8.
Not sure what "fast casual" means? It's become shorthand for spots that blend super-short service time with a casual dining atmostphere. Think Panera Bread, Cosi, and Corner Bakery Café – they don't offer full table service, but they're a step above the burger giants and fast-food sub shops.
And there's a reason they're suddenly everywhere: We like them. According to Chicago-based Technomic, fast-casual chains far outpaced traditional fast-food restaurants in 2009. Sales in the fast-casual category grew 4%, while quick-service restaurants fell 0.4%.
Stephanie's would also have an environmentally conscious spin. Execs are pondering ideas like biodegradable cutlery, rooftop herb gardens, and fresh flowers on tables. Also being considered? Partnerships with retailers like Whole Foods, where customers could pick up frozen items. And watch out, Domino's: home delivery -- via electric cars -- is also a possibility.
"We think the biggest unmet customer need is great-tasting, delicious, affordable food that is also good for you," Donahue told Crain's. "We want the whole feel and environment to be socially responsible, we want it to be a respite."
Seem odd to make the leap from the golden arches to health food? Well, both execs have a history of introducing healthy initiatives during their McDonald's tenure: During Roberts' run as president-COO of the chain, the company added nutrition information to its packaging, along with good-for-you options like salads, and yogurt parfaits. Donahue is the former chief communications and external relations officer for McDonald's USA, and was responsible for launching company's first Social Responsibility Department.
Will their new venture succeed? It's anybody's guess. But whether you're a health-food nut or not, who doesn't want more options for lunch?