sweetgreen salad photo

Fast food spots like Chipotle are exploding in terms of popularity. In fact, the chain has seen a 12 percent surge in profits over the last quarter. A new generation of small fast food chains has found its place in the market. Regional chains like Tender Greens, LYFE Kitchen, SweetGreen, and Native Foods offer the farm to table answer to fast food, featuring organic, vegetarian, sustainable, grass fed, and even local offerings. It’s a more conscious fast food.

“This is not a passing fad,” said B. Hudson Riehle, the research director for the National Restaurant Association, who added that locally grown food and sustainability were the top two customer priorities reported this year in the group’s annual poll of American chefs. “It’s only going to get stronger.”

Veggie Grill, a vegan chain with more than 25 stores on the West Coast came in #7 on Restaurant Business Magazine’s annual list of the fastest growing small chain restaurants. While these chains still only make up a very small portion of the fast food pie, their importance is growing, which tells you a lot about how our nation’s food culture is changing for the better.

Chipotle is known for leading the pack when it comes to more ethical fast food by labeling GMOs, discussing animal welfare, and shining a light on the importance of local foods and small farms. At the same time, their prices are on par with fast food restaurants.

“Good food doesn’t have to be expensive,” Adam Eskin, founder of the healthy fast food restaurant Dig Inn said on The New York Times. “It’s not calorically defined. It’s not about being vegan or vegetarian or pescatarian. It’s just knowing where your food comes from and exactly what’s in it.”

Another regional chain, LYFE Kitchen has herbs growing in its dining rooms, serves grass fed beef, and uses real plates and utensils.

“We want to be the place where the vegan can come for the portobello burger with almond-milk cheese, with the Neanderthal friend who just wants a really good cheeseburger,” Mike Donahue, the chain’s cofounder said to The New York Times. “We want to beat the vegetarian veto, where one person gets to decide where the whole group is going to have lunch.”

It’s a light at the end of the tunnel for those of us that travel often or are too busy to cook but still want to eat mindfully.

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Image: Ted Eytan