In 1986, McDonald’s had big plans to open a new restaurant in Rome – not only Italy’s first, but the largest in the world. When word got out, however, Italians from all quarters protested. City planners objected that the American company lacked the right permits. Politicians claimed that it would ruin the historic importance of the Piazza di Spagna, where the restaurant would be located. Thousands of people rallied, including major celebrities who bewailed the “Americanization of Italy.”
An Italian journalist named Carlo Petrini took the spotlight. His novel approach to counteract this unwanted incursion of Big Macs and McNuggets was to hand out free plates of penne to the protestors. Using pasta as a symbol of traditional Italian culture, he channeled public anger into a nascent movement that by 1989 was officially founded as Slow Food International.
We fell prey to the same virus: 'the fast life' that fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest “fast- food.”
– Slow Food Manifesto
Ironically, now thirty years later, the Slow Food movement has hardly eradicated fast food. In fact, it has revitalized the industry with a new generation of chain restaurants that are hybrids of slow food quality and fast food efficiency. This category, fast casual dining, is growing more quickly than any other segment of the market.
Today, there are more than 1,500 Slow Food chapters worldwide. In the United States, there is one official chapter, with 25,000 members. Each chapter works to fulfill a worldwide mission to promote and preserve local cuisines, organic ingredients, and traditional cooking methods in direct opposition to the global chains, processed ingredients, and industrial processing methods epitomized by McDonald’s.
Each Slow Food member is “called upon to practice and disseminate a new, more precise and, at the same time, broader concept of food quality based on three basic, interconnected prerequisites.”
Slow Food and the values it represents are part of the larger and ongoing “alternative food movement” that also witnessed the rise of organics, the proliferation of farmers markets, and the publication of highly influential books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. More Americans than ever are taking a greater interest in the quality and safety of their food from farm to fork. Consequently, the food industry has had to adapt.
Steve Ells was one of the pioneers who first realized that slow food values might be integrated into fast food operations. He founded Chipotle with the idea that food served fast did not have to be a typical fast food experience. Calling his restaurant’s mission Food With Integrity, Ells sought “better food from using ingredients that are not only fresh, but that – where possible – are sustainably grown and Responsibly Raised™ with respect for the animals, the land, and the farmers who produce the food.”
Like Slow Food, Chipotle’s menu focuses on taste, freshness, and meat raised naturally without hormones or antibiotics. Its recipes are inspired by chef traditions of hand-made, artisanal dishes. More significantly, Ells made his connection to Slow Food explicit in 2014 when Chipotle partnered with the U.S. chapter to support the creation of 100 school gardens in ten metropolitan areas across the country. While Slow Food provided the curriculum and labor for each program, Ells funded them with nearly $500,000.
It should probably be no surprise that sweetgreen, a relative newcomer to the fast casual scene, has followed in Chipotle’s footsteps., According to co-founder Rachel Chemerynksi, the chain is on a mission to take the salad bar concept farther than it’s gone before: “We’re educating our customers where their food is coming from.” In nearly every city where the company has restaurants, Sweetgreen sponsors a program to teach elementary school students about the basics of nutrition and the value of relying on seasonal produce. Says cofounder Nathaniel Ru, Sweetgreen’s ultimate goal is to “raise a generation that understands the difference between cheap fast food and healthy fast food.’’
Part of that goal is an online feature called “Meet the Farmer” that showcases the hard work of local farmers who supply fresh ingredients for each location. Sweetgreen’s food and beverage team creates relationships with farmers even before a store opens in any given community. Vetting farmers helps ensure that their products are organic and locally sourced whenever possible. Based on these relationships, chefs shift the menu five times a year so that salad recipes use only what’s in season in each region. Carlo Petrini would be proud.
As in all good stories, we come back full circle to the beginning. Lo and behold, the icon of fast food, McDonald’s, has made its own concessions to the Slow Food movement. Since the turn of the century, the global chain has abandoned margarine for butter, stopped selling chickens raised with antibiotics and milk from cows treated with growth hormones, uses fresh eggs for its popular Egg McMuffin and sustainably-sourced Alaskan pollock for its fish fillets, and added spinach and kale to its salad blend.
Most recently, McDonald’s has instituted a “fresh never frozen” beef policy as part of its own new initiative called The Simpler the Better™. Like Chipotle and sweetgreen, McDonald’s is also demonstrating concern for children’s nutrition by drastically modifying its Happy Meals: reducing the serving size of fries, cutting the amount of sugar in chocolate milk, offering apple slices and strawberry yogurt as sides, adding bottled water as a beverage choice, and making cheeseburgers available only by request. Petrini may still object to McDonald’s as falling short of Slow Food’s standards, but clearly, the chain is undergoing something of a culinary revolution to stay competitive with the fast casual segment.
The combination of fast food and slow food looks like a win-win for farmers and consumers. And based on sales and market growth, Chipotle and sweetgreen are giving McDonald’s a run for their money, with many other upstarts entering the field. Other than having to charge consumers higher prices for more expensive ingredients, it would seem this trend has no downside.
Except one important aspect – food safety. For a national restaurant chain, serving fresh food fast and in huge volumes means that careful preparation and continuous monitoring are essential to preventing foodborne illness. Heavily processed and frozen foods, while perhaps the antithesis of “slow food,” have safeguards that fresh food lack, and are therefore less at risk along the production and distribution chain. By converting from frozen to fresh beef, McDonald’s is accepting the much larger risk that Chipotle – as we all know from recurring headlines – has paid for in loss of profits and consumer confidence.
sweetgreen has not been immune to outbreaks caused by their own internal issues. Currently, the company is investing in blockchain to track and trace the origins of the produce that it buys. Their effort to increase transparency in their supply chain is both admirable and prescient, as more fast food and fast casual restaurants must come to terms with adopting new technologies to prevent safety disasters.
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