Tasty, veggie-centric, eco-friendly fare. What’s not to love?
There's a revolution under way in the fast-casual dining segment. Across the country, chefs once known for fine dining are working hard to package their food at a lower price point and deliver it faster to more people. There's Danny Meyer's Shake Shack, José Andrés' new concept called Beefsteak and Joshua Skenes (Saison) new low-priced noodle spots — and the oddball team of Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi are working on a chain called Loco'l that will feature a 99-cent hamburger. Of course, L.A.'s Wolfgang Puck and Chicago's Rick Bayless have been working on the holy grail of a winning fast-casual concept for years.
The phenomenon has been called the Chipotle Effect, named for the chain launched 22 years ago by Steve Ells (himself a fine dining chef from San Francisco's Stars) that has proven that chef-driven concepts can succeed in bringing responsibly produced food to the masses.
The wave of interest in fast-casual is colliding with a health-food craze — there's even a growing vegan chain called Native Kitchen thriving in once heavy meat-and-potato towns like Chicago. The dining landscape is changing. Fast.
Enter Freshii, a health-conscious, sustainably minded chain hailing from Toronto that has over a hundred locations nationwide. Combining a youthful, Apple store-like aesthetic with fresh food (mostly vegetables) to-go, it is gunning hard to rule this brave new world in which grease is out and sprouts are in.
Comparisons to Chipotle are inevitable, with some diners complaining that Freshii's food isn't as satisfying. What critics miss, however, is that while Chipotle positions itself as a healthy alternative, the typical number of calories consumed per visit is a staggering 1,070, from data recently gathered by The New York Times. That's more than a Big Mac and fries, which is 1,040. At Freshii, the calories in most meals amount to around half that. Moreover, its packaging is "made from eco-friendly vegetable starches, like corn or potatoes. It biodegrades quickly," according to the Freshii website. Where else is the effort for healthy ingredients and eco-conscious operation this evident?
Bright and cheery, if a little stark, Freshii's mostly white interior is brightened with an AstroTurf mosiac of green grass. On the far wall, huge black lettering reads, "ENERGIZE."
The customer base skews female, but there are plenty of lone office guys tucking into burritos. The menu is full of choices and options to customize, with most combinations available as salads, bowls or wraps. Kale or quinoa can be added as a "base" for $1, and burritos and wraps can be made "green," with a blanched collard leaf subbing for a flour tortilla, for 75 cents. There are plenty of suggested options, but you can also create your own adventure. Tofu, falafel, chicken, steak, or shrimp can be added for an additional charge.
The more successful items are ones that have a healthy bent or sport strong Asian flavors. Among salad options, both the Metaboost (spinach, kale, mangos, carrots, edamame, almonds, goat cheese) and the Superbiotic (spinach, chickpeas, onions, cucumbers, sundried tomatoes, corn, artichoke hearts, roasted red pepper, cucumber dill dressing) were tasty and nicely portioned. What you give up in fats and carbs you gain in texture and bounty. Sure, the dressing is a little onion-y and maybe too thin, but the overall impression is compelling.
The Teriyaki Twist bowl (brown rice, broccoli, carrots, edamame, cucumber, green onions, sesame seeds, crispy wontons, teriyaki sauce) offers rich umami flavors. Ditch the silly wontons, add a protein, and it's a filling meal. Likewise, the Buddha's Satay (rice noodles, cabbage, broccoli, peanut sauce) eats like a fresh and filling deconstructed Vietnamese spring roll.
The Thai lemongrass burrito (quinoa, cabbage, carrots, cilantro, edamame, spicy lemongrass sauce) works well as a green wrap, and may be one of the best things on the menu. There's a great balance of veggie ingredients to rice, and while this isn't the world's largest "burrito," it packs a punch. Less impressive is the Bangkok (brown rice, spinach, cucumber, mushroom, carrot, cabbage, peanut sauce) with added shrimp. There were simply too few shrimp, and the sauce is bland.
Three soups — Asian vegetable, Southwestern and spicy lemongrass — all have high amounts of sodium, so skip them if you're watching your salt intake. Plus, they're a bit watery.
If you're into juicing, the versions at Freshii will do in a pinch, but for $6, they're a bit steep for what you get. There are also smoothies and frozen yogurt.
A highlight for parents is a short but appealing and healthy kids menu, all items $5. There's a whole-wheat cheese or chicken quesadilla, a teriyaki bowl, a salad and a basic chicken noodle soup.
Comparing Freshii's fare to Chipotle's misses the point. Half of the excitement with this brand is that it's bringing fresh vegetables in a compelling package with an eye to sustainability right smack into Middle American mall-land. Ten years ago, everyone said it couldn't be done. Freshii is proving the broccoli haters — and the status quo — deliciously wrong.