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