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4food: Creating healthy, sustainable, fast-food meals

   /   Apr 12th, 2011Food, Interviews, New York City

While you can’t force people into eating healthfully, perhaps you can make it into an enjoyable or interesting experience, which they’re more likely to choose. That’s the approach that 4food, a restaurant whose first location opened in midtown Manhattan last fall, is taking in their quest to bring healthy fast-food to Americans.

In “dejunking” fast-food, 4food strives to work within the confines of typical American attitudes toward meals: they want them quick, customized, and tasty. And 4food has found a way to provide all that, while avoiding the calories added by frying, and adding nutritional value to American standards like hamburgers. But 4food sees dietary change as part of a broader reinvention of eating out, which is why they’ve built a restaurant that uses energy in a sustainable manner, incorporates the surrounding cityscape into the dining environment, and incentivizes customers to market the company through social media.

Dowser: How did you identify the need for this kind of restaurant?
Josiah Perry, co-developer and co-owner: We piloted the project in the Bronx, where we knew that food-related illnesses like obesity and diabetes were prevalent. And we were further motivated to act on this problem when our friend, film-producer George Jackson, passed away at a young age from a massive stroke related to obesity.

So why is the first location in Manhattan if you saw the problem occurring in the Bronx?
We piloted the project for one year in an apartment in the Bronx, and eventually we’ll have a location there after we open a few more in Manhattan. But it was simply evident to our investors that our launch would be more successful in Midtown. The real estate market was depressed at the time, and we got a good deal on the property.

How are you providing an innovative solution to dietary problems like obesity?
Well, we didn’t totally reinvent the wheel. We’re serving fast-food. But what’s different about our food is that nothing is fried – it’s baked or boiled – and our burgers use the best ingredients, like naturally-raised, grass-fed beef from Bill Niman’ s ranch. If you eat animals, then you are what they eat, and also how they are treated affects their quality. Also, we cut out the hole in the middle of the burger, because this is the part that cooks the slowest and makes the rest of the burger overcooked, and we put in a customized nutritional scoop.

The way we do meal customization is unique, too. When you come in to 4food you create a user profile that evaluates your nutritional needs according to how often you exercise, what percentage of your meals is protein or carbohydrate, your gender and weight and so on. Then the system generates a custom burger for your profile.

Critics might say that this is an individualized solution to what’s really a public, systemic problem: obesity and malnutrition.
We’re hoping to inspire people through our approach to food. People have to take it upon themselves to change their lifestyles, and we’re helping them to do that.

But we also try to set an example to everyone in the city by creating a restaurant that emphasizes sustainable energy use, transparency, and a pleasant eating experience that connects you to the urban surroundings. That’s why we have these special solar-sensitive light panels on the windows, and open space that makes for a calm environment. We also have open kitchens that allow you to see your meal being prepared, and our receipts display the calorie content of what you ordered so you know how it fits your dietary needs.

How are you marketing your restaurant and reaching your target communities?
We’re not using traditional marketing. Instead, we’re letting our customers do it through social media like Facebook and Twitter. When you get a customized burger for your profile, you can post it on your social media accounts. Then, every time someone purchases your burger and mentions your name, you get a commission. So you get discount meals, and this keeps you coming back to the restaurant.

Who in your life has influenced your ways of thinking and working?
My grandmother came to this country from Trinidad, and she arrived with nothing. But she worked really hard, and still managed to cook healthy meals for our family, three times a day. Also, George Jackson, whose untimely death inspired my co-founders and I to start 4food, had the ability to turn people into great producers. The problem was that, while he reached others, he didn’t take good care of himself.

You’re self-taught in the ways of business: you didn’t finish college and instead struck out on your own, following your dreams until they became reality. What advice would you give to people who have an idea but don’t know how to realize it?
Just start! We started this place with no money, and only an experimental kitchen in the Bronx, where we worked on the recipes for a year. But we were so inspired by George. Just start, and the help will come.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

9 Responses

  1. [...] The real estate market was depressed at the time, and we got a good deal on the property. How are you providing an innovative solution to dietary problems like obesity? Well, we didn't totally reinvent the wheel. We're serving fast-food. …See all stories on this topic »Dowser [...]

  2. Eloise L-R says:

    I think this is such a good idea! And I don’t only mean the fact that it’s healthier fast food but the entire concept.
    I am currently doing business at a design school so I learn a lot about the success and appeal of brands with added value (because there is so much choice out there right now) and I think the fact that there was so much thought put into 4food, from the food itself to the environment in which it was going to be served, makes it that much more appealing as it proves to its customers that it is completely dedicated to every aspect of the lifestyle it is encouraging others to adopt.
    I can’t wait to go to midtown and try it out for myself!
    (I already went on the website to build my own burger and I even posted a link to my facebook page so that my friends can discover it too!)

  3. Eve says:

    I also think this seems like an interesting idea. In New York there are many places that serve healthy fast food, with organic meat, etc. but this company really gives an edge with their extra services and options. They also keep an emphasis on sustainable energy use etc. which is really pleasing to me.
    But i wish that they had started the movement in the Bronx as they had originally planned to with their research, because they first were aiming to solve a specific problem. And I hope that they really do make that happen soon.

  4. nml says:

    I would agree with both comments while I LOVE the concept I am disappointed in the way the end result again goes towards providing alternative healthy eating for a higher income neighborhood. But then again this is based on assumptions so my follow-up questions would be:

    “We piloted the project for one year in an apartment in the Bronx, and eventually we’ll have a location there after we open a few more in Manhattan.”–When you say piloted it in an apt..who was being served? Local people from the neighborhood or was is just cheap rent and those served were of similar demographic background found in midtown east? Was this purely a financial decision to need to earn income in midtown Manhattan to finance a Bronx location?

    “But it was simply evident to our investors that our launch would be more successful in Midtown. The real estate market was depressed at the time, and we got a good deal on the property.” –wouldn’t the real estate market be depressed all over not just in Manhattan? Why would it be most successful in Manhattan? the midtown lunch rush? that would make sense.

    Unfortunately the way this reads leave me uncomfortable with how the Bronx appears to be used as a cheap way to get a biz off of the ground that doesn’t serve the local community of the Bronx. It almost seems unnecessary to even include it b/c as Eve says if they wanted to solve a specific problem in the Bronx as it appears they intended they aren’t addressing it anymore. I do like the concept and will want to support it!

  5. Taylor says:

    I love the concept of creating a healthy, sustainable, and relaxing dining experience for users that is, at the same time, convenient and ready quickly. Creating a go-to place for busy workers in Midtown that will slowly (but surely) help to change their eating habits is an excellent idea that all will hopefully catch on to. The idea of cutting out the middle of the burger is genius, not to mention the possibility of adding a scoop of mac and cheese to a burger (although I will probably pass on that one).

    As a business student also at design school, I worked on a case study of high schools in Brooklyn determining the best method to create a more sustainable and healthy dining experience for public school teenagers. We determined through extensive research and prototyping that in order to have the most effect, it is necessary to create healthy versions of food those kids were already accustomed to eating.

    This restaurant seems to prove that point further. Congratulations!

    I can’t believe I used to work right down the street and didn’t stop in to try this place out! I saw it under construction and read about it, but didn’t bother taking it further. Now 4food will be my destination and not just a place along the path.

  6. Rachel says:

    Eve and nml: thanks for stressing the importance of placing the solution where its impact is most needed. From my perspective, what I gather from my interview with Mr. Perry as well as other interviews I’ve done with entrepreneurs is that the need for solid investment often drives certain decisions in a business. In this case, I think the choice for 4food’s founders was either to do it in Manhattan, where investors felt comfortable putting their dollars, or not do it at all. At any rate, it is safe to say that problems like obesity, while more prevalent in some outer-borough neighborhoods, also certainly inflict working populations that can be found in Midtown Manhattan.

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