The term "food desert" -- which refers to areas without ready access to wholesome food, especially poor urban neighborhoods -- has become a potent buzzword in food policy circles over the past few years. Eliminating food deserts is now a priority for both governments and major corporations looking for good PR.
But getting rid of a food desert doesn't magically solve all of the nutritional problems of the people who live there. It's easy enough to plop a Whole Foods or a farmers market down in the middle of an inner-city neighborhood, but it's not a given that the people who live nearby will actually eat the food available there. After all, cooking fresh produce from scratch can be expensive, difficult and time-consuming, especially compared to ordering burgers and fries at a drive-thru fast food restaurant.
With that in mind, two acclaimed California chefs have started a project to bring healthy food to disadvantaged communities by working within the model that many health advocates despise: fast food. In the summer of 2013, Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco teamed up with L.A.'s Kogi BBQ founder Roy Choi to create a new kind of fast food restaurant -- one that serves meals that are affordable, delicious and legitimately healthy. They're calling the new fast food chain "Loco'l."
Hints about Loco'l have been percolating ever since Choi and Patterson first announced the venture in 2014, but reporter Howie Kahn revealed crucial new details about how the project will work in a great feature for WSJ magazine's April's Taste issue.
In the piece, Choi and Patterson take pains to distance Loco'l from fast casual chains, such as Chipotle and Shake Shack, that also seem to offer a promising alternative to traditional fast food.
"Those places are more upscale," Patterson told Kahn. "They're designed to make you think you're not eating fast food."
"Fast food is the only totally inclusive kind of dining," Choi added. "Everyone feels like they belong."
To that end, the prices at Loco'l will be directly competitive with those at major fast food chains; Kahn reports menu items will range between 99 cents and $8. And though the Loco'l menu won't include soda or French fries, it will include a number of dishes that, at least superficially, wouldn't be out of place at McDonald's or Burger King. There will be hamburgers, for example, but the buns were crafted by a star San Francisco baker, and the patties will include quinoa, barley and seaweed in addition to beef.
The'll also offer rice bowls and a host of small, seasonal vegetables called "Yotchays" after the Korean word for "vegetable," the pair revealed at a talk Wednesday hosted by WSJ at the Line Hotel in L.A.'s Koreatown, where Choi operates two restaurants.
Patterson and Choi also said they're on track to open the first Loco'l this fall in nearby Watts, the site of an infamous series of race riots in 1965. A second location, in San Francisco's notoriously rough Tenderloin district, will follow a few months later.
Beyond that, Choi and Patterson have huge ambitions for the future of Loco'l; they want it to be nothing less than a revolutionary force in the world of fast food. In the WSJ feature, they say they -- hyperbolically, one assumes -- want to open "a million" locations of the chain.
Before they can get there, though, they'll have to address big question marks, especially when it comes to the economics of the enterprise. Patterson and Choi raised over $128,000 on Indiegogo to support the opening of the first two Loco'l outposts. But crowdsourcing will only get them so far: to expand Loco'l enough for it to have the kind of impact the two chefs imagine will ultimately require it to be a self-sustaining business that throws off serious cash. And Patterson and Choi could find it tough to make Loco'l profitable while maintaining high quality and healthfulness.
Patterson may have had these challenges in mind when he admitted, in a statement at once grandiose and realistic, that there may be a ceiling to the concrete impact Loco'l can have.
"I don't know if we're going to be the ones to actually change the model," he said at the Line Hotel talk. "But we are at least going to be able to be a spark in the revolution."
When the revolution is as badly needed as this one, even a spark may count for a lot.