If you are a seasoned chauffeur of children, the idea of adding a drive-through window to a restaurant won’t seem like a novel one. You have already spent years of your life shouting food orders into clown faces, dropping the change from a cashier’s hand, and picking cold fries out of car seats. But what about a drive-through window at a slow-food restaurant?
Erin McKool is a mother, lawyer, and co-owner of Start Restaurant. Two years ago, she and her husband, Mike, hired Frank LaRocca, a former district manager for Einstein’s, to research ways to make slow food fast. In hindsight, adding a drive-through seems like a no-brainer. It has proven that people will wait in their cars to buy healthy food. But the move was a bold one for the McKools and LaRocca. “Being a new concept, I really didn’t know if people would get it,” McKool says. “But it’s where we do 60 percent of our business.”
McKool turned to healthy cooking and eating years ago. The pantry in her kitchen at home and in her restaurant look like they were stocked by Michael Pollan himself. The menu at Start is mainly grass fed, free range, and hormone and gluten free, with no antibiotics or preservatives and certainly no nitrates. The cows and chickens all lived long and well before they laid down their lives to become sandwiches. The plates and utensils and cups disintegrate with the slightest provocation. “It’s part of our DNA to be thoughtful on the environment,” McKool says as she picks up a brown paper coffee cup. “This will biodegrade if you leave it in your car during the summer.”The drive-through is not what attracted me to Start. It was the Mediterranean quinoa salad. I had stopped in to pick up lunch for my officemates and ordered 10 items. Back in the company kitchen, we conducted a semiofficial taste test. I started with the quinoa salad, a mixture of the cooked whole-grain seed, fresh feta, ruby red tomatoes, barely blanched broccoli, and kalamata olives lightly tossed with extra virgin olive oil and herb vinaigrette. Rather than share the salad with my fellow tasters, I ducked into an empty meeting room and finished it myself.
The next day, I returned to Start and bought another quinoa salad. This time I added to my order a blueberry and pomegranate smoothie blended with organic vanilla yogurt. The following afternoon, fearing recognition not as a food critic but as an obsessive compulsive eater, I picked up two salads at the drive-through. Buying two salads would save me from having to show my face the next day. But I could hear the salad calling from the back of my refrigerator that night as I watched Law & Order: SVU. The bowl was empty before the perp was captured.
I became fixated on the salad. It was tasty, it was affordable ($7), and it was filling without making me feel like I’d ingested a sack of cement. I convinced myself this was healthy behavior, but after 12 quinoa salads, I realized I needed to sample a few more items for this review.
I went early for breakfast. As I poured a spoonful of maple syrup over a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal topped with chopped pecans, raisins, and dried cranberries, I took in the dining room. The design, mostly done by Plan B, is Restoration Hardware meets Frank Lloyd Wright in Dwell. Pendant light fixtures formed from triangles of recycled wood hang over tables constructed with—you guessed it—mostly recycled wood. Silhouettes of tall, skinny tree trunks and birds are painted on the walls. A mural made of several hundred model-train-set miniature trees mimics an aerial view of a dense forest. Sunlight floods the space, warms your back, and perhaps recharges your amino acids. Sipping a cup of rich coffee brewed from fairly traded beans, sweetened with agave honey, and cooled with a splash of organic milk, I noted that there were only two other people inside the restaurant. Eight cars, though, snaked through the drive-through line, the tail of which hung out into a northbound lane of Greenville. I waited until that last car completed its trip. It took 20 minutes. Clearly the driver didn’t mind leaving a carbon footprint by sitting in an idling automobile and texting the time away.
Yes, Start on Greenville is the beginning of many Starts. “The long-range plan is to be a national chain,” McKool says. “The price of organic food has come down. We couldn’t have done this three years ago. We want to grow slowly, without franchising, and make sure our ingredients are high quality.”
The high-quality restaurant food tastes nothing like the fast food McKool chooses to upgrade. Burgers are made with hormone-free, grass-fed, free-range beef that has no preservatives. It takes two hands and a large jaw to handle the Badder Better Burger. The third-of-a-pound patty is barely visible. Peel off the top whole wheat bun and you are greeted by slices of nitrate-free smoked bacon, avocado, white cheddar, romaine, fresh tomato, and red onion. The mosh pit of toppings is spiced with a generous dollop of Dijon mayonnaise. Grilled Harvestland chicken gets the same fancy dressings. The meat is marinated each night and baked. (Start doesn’t use fryers.) The result is a tender and juicy bird used in sandwiches, salads, wraps, and the kids’ menu.
It’s healthy food made quickly, not diet food. But that hasn’t stopped weight-conscious customers from demanding diet drinks. “I am a purist, so I didn’t want any Coke product on the menu,” McKool says. “I will add Diet Coke with Splenda to open to a broader base. But at least we won’t have aspartame.” Besides smoothies, Start offers a nice variety of refreshments, such as coconut water, iced chai tea, Izze sparkling juices, local and gluten-free beer, and wine from vineyards practicing green production methods.
On my last trip to Start, I put McKool’s concept to the real test. I borrowed my 3-year-old nephew, James. I strapped him into his car seat and headed south from my home in North Dallas. As I drove down Preston Road, I passed a McDonald’s and a Chick-fil-A, a fact that did not escape James. “I want to go play at that Chickalay,” he said. When I told him I don’t go to Chick-fil-A because I think the food is bad for you, he changed his strategy. “Well, I can play at McDonald’s, and you can just have vanilla ice cream and not French fries,” he suggested. I cursed my sister’s parenting. She, like so many others, has been seduced by the fast-food playgrounds that keep kiddos busy and offer parents respite.
I pulled into a short line of cars behind Start. “I want chicken and French fries,” James said. “And a Dr Pepper.” I told him they didn’t have French fries or Dr Pepper and tried to sell him on baked tater tots and chocolate milk. In the end, he ended up with a peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich and tater tots, and I shared some of my chicken sandwich, small mixed salad, and smoothie. That’s the good news. The hard-to-swallow news? Our lunch from the drive-though came to $20.03.
Whole Foods has already enlightened us. Healthy, organic, sustainable, and responsible eating is expensive. We understand how important it is to cut out fried and processed food, high-fructose corn syrup, and saturated fats, but that doesn’t mean we actually do it. Especially if you’re on a budget. McKool’s goal to put a Start in every city across the country is noble and certainly a bold step in the right direction. So far, the drive-though has worked.
So what about the next logical concession? I asked if she would consider putting in a playground at the next Start. “My son is 5, and he wants one so he can play,” she says. “He’s old enough to know that I don’t want to take him [to McDonald’s] because of the food. But being a lawyer, I’m hypersensitive to liability.” Life is filled with risk and insistent 5-year-olds. My money’s on the ball crawl—with biodegradable balls, of course.