Andy and Rachel Berliner started their line of vegetarian frozen dinners in 1987 after their daughter Amy was born and the time-crunched parents couldn’t find any healthy frozen meals that didn’t “taste like cardboard.” Now the founders of Amy’s Kitchen are attempting to start a sea change in another, historically unhealthy food market: fast food.
The result is Amy’s Drive Thru in Rohnert Park (the company is headquartered in Petaluma and operates a processing plant in Santa Rosa,) which opened at the end of July. By most accounts, it’s been a success. Hundreds lined up for its opening, and the restaurant has already racked up more than 200 Yelp reviews in under two months. When I visited around 1 PM on a Saturday, the drive through was backed up, and virtually all of the parking spots were taken. We were elated when we saw two free spots next to each other, but alas, those were for electric vehicles only.
The restaurant is located in the heart of enemy territory: a main thoroughfare just off the freeway that’s bordered by a handful of fast food chains: In-N-Out a block to the right, Arby’s to the left, McDonald’s in a nearby Walmart, and a Taco Bell across the street. The sprawling Graton Casino looms in the background, visible from inside the restaurant, just a field away.
Amy’s Drive Thru looks like a retrofitted barn, with high, beamed ceilings, a living roof and a water tower that collects rainwater for the landscaping. Inside, it’s bright and airy, with huge windows and a calming color palette (muted greens, greys and blues) that suggests an expensive Big Sur spa.
The menu is small and simple, featuring burgers, pizza, burritos, chili, salads and mac and cheese. (A style note: typically, I might put scare quotes around vegan “burgers” or “cheese” but since everything I consumed for this piece was a vegan or gluten-free version of its traditional self, I’m skipping those). Everything is vegetarian, and all menu items can be made gluten-free and vegan.
Like any self-respecting fast food place, the cornerstone of the menu is the burger. The burger (“The Amy”) comes with two patties made from what appeared to be a combination of grains, mushrooms and quinoa (Amy’s didn’t respond to a request for ingredient lists) and comes with traditional fixings: cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and a special sauce. The burger hit all of the right notes: a crispy burger; soft bun; flavorful pickles; lettuce and onion adding a welcome textural contrast; and a satisfyingly tangy sauce. The vegan cheese melted well and added a comforting texture. The patty–the Berliners say they went through over 1,000 versions of it before they settled on the current recipe. It had a nicely crisped edge and the mushrooms gave it a meaty texture.
The patty was well-seasoned and remarkably inoffensive in a way that made me not miss meat. It sent me into a psychological tailspan: how much does the meat really matter in a fast food burger? When I eat a double-double from In-N-Out, how much of my enjoyment comes from the meat itself–a thin, fairly bland patty from a probably unhappy cow–and how much comes from the accessories: the salty, melted cheese; sweetly acidic ketchup; and crunchy vegetables, topped with a piquant secret sauce?
I also tried the vegan and gluten-free mac and cheese with tomatoes and green onion. Despite its nontraditional ingredients–it’s made from rice noodles and Daiya–the texture was perfect. The chewy noodles held up to the thick cheesy sauce, and the bread crumbs provided a nice textural contrast. But while the texture was great, the taste was less so. It had an unidentifiable, yet distinctly off flavor–ironically, the same kind of fake, slightly sweet taste of Kraft’s blue box.
Dessert was a chocolate milkshake, made with almond and coconut milks, and sweetened with agave. There was none of the chalkiness or graininess of some non-dairy ice creams, but even compared to a dairy-based milkshakes, it holds up. It was spiked with a subtle, welcome coconut flavor and slight nuttiness, and had a depth of flavor and a decadence that my beloved In-N-Out milkshakes–even with their declarations that they’re made from “Real Ice Cream”–lacked.
You could argue that this type of fast food isn’t necessarily healthier than the traditional kind. After all, fake cheese and fake ice cream have calories too. You could argue that we shouldn’t be prioritizing fast food at all, and should be instead be focusing on cooking more at home. But no one can argue that Amy’s Drive Thru isn’t a step in the right direction. Americans aren’t going to stop eating their 70 pounds of red meat and 54 pounds of poultry per year–detrimental to both the health of their bodies and environment–because of well-intentioned editorials or PETA’s latest salacious campaign. If they’re going to consume less meat, it’s going to be because it’s cheap and easy to make the switch.
That’s what Amy’s provides. The food is decent, even satisfying, but that’s almost beside the point. It’s affordable, and convenient: a five-minute side trip off the 101 for busy parents and tourists heading to Sonoma and Napa for wine tasting.
That’s how change happens: with small adjustments–stopping by Amy’s one night after soccer practice instead of Taco Bell–and an accessible, scalable concept: all menu items except for salads are less than $6, and the company is already planning to open at least one more drive-thru in the next year or so.
If Americans want healthier fast food options, someone has to prove that it’s a successful concept. And Amy’s, used to defying expectations–in a 2009 interview, the Berliners recalled how they were turned down for a business loan by almost every bank in town because no one believed consumers would buy organic, vegetarian frozen foods–is a good company to do it.
Amy’s Drive Thru
58 Golf Course Drive West [Map]
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Ph: (707) 755-3629
Hours: Mon-Sun, 10:30am-10pm
Facebook: Amy’s Kitchen
Price range: $ (entrees under $10)