The meat is raised naturally; the packaging is recycled; the ovens use renewable power. New green fast-food chains are serving up burgers and fries to feel good about.
It's really cold and windy in Manhattan. The Friday lunch crowds scurry in and out of delis and take-out places. But at one fast-food joint, the customers calmly form a line that spills out onto the sidewalk. This is Chipotle on East 44th Street, and I join the queue accompanied by two fast-food industry experts - my teenaged son and daughter.
Once inside, we decide among a burrito, fajita burrito, burrito bowl or tacos and a filling - chicken, steak, carnitas or barbacoa (spicy shredded beef). At the head of the line, we tell the lady behind the counter what we want, and she and her colleagues move the meals down the line in about a minute, letting us choose among pinto and black beans, roast chili-corn or several types of tomatillo-chili. We pay (about $8 each), then hunt for a table in the crowded dining room. It seems like a fairly typical fast-food experience, but we're tucking into a meal that Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, says embodies a philosophy of "food with integrity." Is he serious?
It's no joke. We knew we were in for a different kind of fast-food experience at Chipotle from the beginning. The customers lined up outside are nice to one another, making eye contact and smiling. The women behind the counter seem older than the typical fast-food worker, and there's something attentive and almost motherly in their manner. But once we unwrap our meals, we're focused on one fact: This food tastes really, really good - nothing at all like the fast food we've tasted before.Instead of sampling each other's selections (as we originally intended), we greedily eat our own meals - no sharing. I'd never share any food that tasted as good as these carnitas. Fuggedaboutit. This is flavourful, succulent pork, with no hint of greasiness. The tomatillo green-chili salsa is fresh and couldn't have been made more than an hour ago. The subtly spiced pinto beans have a warm, homemade taste, and there's fluffy, soft rice underneath it all.
My attempts to sample my kids' tacos and burritos are rebuffed, but they assure me this is the "best" fast food they've ever tasted. "It's way more satisfying than normal fast food, says my 19-year-old son, who's downed more than enough burgers and fries to know.
Chipotle is just one example of a new brand of green fast-food restaurant springing up across Europe and the U.S. faster than you can say, "Supersize my sprouts and tofu, please." These establishments provide the speed and convenience we've come to expect from conventional fast-food joints, but they're doing it while looking after the quality of the food and the health of the environment.