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Interview: A Spoke to reinvent fast food

   /   Feb 9th, 2011Food, Interviews

The Udon Project: Ian Sherman, Deborah Meisel and David Gumbiner

Could a jiu-jitsu approach to fast food be the best way to beat it? 24-year-old entrepreneurs David Gumbiner, Deborah Meisel and Ian Sherman of The Udon Project formed The Spoke to beat fast food at its own game. The Spoke launched by winning the first competition on Yoxi, a new social network for change-makers. The competition asked participants to create videos describing how they would reinvent fast food. Below, Dowser talks with the team about empowered fast food, conceptualizing a start-up in a matter of weeks, and why no one needs to be a genius to do it.

Dowser: How did you come together to work on The Spoke?
The Spoke team: Before this all started we were just three friends interested in working on a project together. David has a background working with street trucks and street food festivals at The Eat Real Festival, Deb is an independent design consultant, and Ian is a web developer who had spent time in Asia and was interested in a food-based project. David saw that Yoxi was beginning a competition in which entrants would ‘reinvent fast food.’ We created and submitted a video to introduce ourselves, and we were off. All we knew when the competition started was that it would be something about food! After that first video it became clear that Yoxi was building itself a social networking site for creative change-makers, that we would be bringing our networks into the site, and that there would be a cash prize.

How did the process of the competition help you to develop your idea?
The first assignment was to present our perspective on reinventing fast food – in two weeks flat. We had to act very quickly, and none of us knew much about fast food, so we starting spending as much time as we could in different fast food restaurants, hearing people’s memories, doing research on the big businesses, and brainstorming.

We were told that the structure of the competition would move from perspective to solution to campaign, and so we were trying to think of solutions and understand the problem at the same time. Fast food really polarizes people – we saw that people either wanted the whole fast food system to go somewhere and die or saw it as a major part of their life. We tried to make our first video of the idea by grounding our solution in what people need that they find in fast food. As you see in the video, we don’t take the perspective that fast food is bad in and of itself – it makes sense that so many people want tasty, cheap, easy-to-hold food. We isolated the parts of fast food that we think are damaging to people in the United States and went through and tried to think of a way to change those particular parts.

I know you went through many ideas, including an incubator for food trucks, a fixed-calorie restaurant, and a restaurant that compels consumers to eat slower. How did you know when you had the idea you could move on?
Because we were working quickly and wanted something impact-oriented, it came down to simplification. We know how to make Pad Thai and had an idea for how to make it portable. Then we pushed it forward with the idea of a crowd-sourced restaurant concept. We really wanted to influence the food-scape of the whole country (not just to be a food truck) and this process pushed us to find a realistic way to do that.

What’s unique about The Spoke’s approach to food?
Our idea was born out of our experience of going to fast food places and finding them so non-transparent, and realizing that the customer had no avenues to communicate with the organization in a time when so many consumers want that. We want to make fast-food locally relevant in a broad sense – to make food that makes sense to the community it’s located in. We’ll have a consistent brand but the offerings of that brand won’t be the same in all places. We’re committed to meeting Americans where they are. For example, we heard from a lot of moms who go to fast food because they are so rushed and their kids are so hungry they don’t want to get out of the car, so we’re creating a drive-thru, bike-thru and walk-thru space.

What resources did Yoxi provide you with?
To begin with, the tight deadlines accelerated our creative process dramatically. For our final video [see below] they partnered us with an amazing ad agency called OgilvyEarth and we spent a week working with them to develop our brand and brand strategy. Yoxi also really pushed us to build a movement through reaching out to our networks to vote in the competition. Because of that we weren’t insular in our development phase and that’s helping us now. They continue to support us greatly with their network and ideas.

Do you think this kind of competition is a useful forum for jumpstarting these kinds of ideas?
Definitely. [Yoxi founder] Sharon Chang always says is that we revere rockstars, athletes, and other celebrities, and she wants to create an environment were people in America should revere entrepreneurs and designers in the same way. In Obama’s recent State of the Union he emphasized how our country needs people to be thinking hard about the challenges that face us and for people to have structured ways to address those problems in actionable ways. Yoxi is encouraging precisely that. They have follow-through and don’t allow good ideas to stagnate.

How do you hope that The Spoke will influence people’s relationship with food, and fast food?
We hope people will be empowered to see fast food as something they are a part of; to be producers as well as consumers. We want people to see that healthier food can be got for less money. In certain communities where fast food is the only available option, we want that fast food to be healthier but still desirable. A major issue with ‘health’ food is that it is developed in places that care about it and applied elsewhere. This is where we’re going to make local food really local and locally relevant.

What are you most proud of from this process?
You don’t know whether you’re capable of something like this until someone pushes you. This is not our stroke of genius. It’s a measured approach to an issue that we care about and motivation on the part of people thinking about it. The Yoxi process really shows how anyone can undergo an intensive process and they will come out with something.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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