Slow Food For Fast People, An Interview With Amanda West

Guest Blogger Eve Fox of Garden of Eating kindly shared her interview with healthy fast food pioneer Amanda West:

Fast food is the ultimate American invention--quick, cheap meals for people on the go. But we pay a heavy price for our national addiction--an epidemic of obesity, the destruction of our fragile environment, and the loss of community ties that could be maintained by taking the time to prepare and eat food together.

Despite these negatives, the need for quick, affordable food is undeniable in today's world. But why on earth are McDonalds and its competitors our only options? Every single time I get hungry on the road, in an airport, or at a shopping mall I wish that someone would hurry up and open a healthy fast food restaurant!

Turns out the wait is finally over--Amanda's Feel Good Fresh Food restaurant opened its doors for business in Berkeley at the end of July 2008.

Amanda's Sign

The restaurant happens to be located right downstairs from my office so I was among the first to check it out (you may remember seeing my review this summer.) I'm happy to report that Amanda's is pretty much exactly what I'd been wishing for--the food is healthy (they have the nutrition guidelines to prove it, too), tasty, and affordable (a cheeseburger made with naturally raised beef and organic cheese is $4.50, baked sweet potato fries are $1.50, and a freshly made agave-sweetened soda is $1.75.)

Amanda's also goes out of its way to reduce its impact on the environment. For example, they don't sell bottled water since it creates too much landfill waste and takes a lot of petroleum to transport. Everything served in the restaurant is also fully compostable so any "trash" left over at the end of your meal can be deposited in one of the restaurant's green bins that feed directly into Amanda!Berkeley's city composting program where it will become rich soil for local farms and city landscaping projects in a matter of months. The restaurant also tries to foster a sense of community with a series of events in the restaurant and around the neighborhood. The future of fast food has never looked so green, nor so healthy!

Amanda is often behind the counter in the restaurant, filling orders alongside her team (the handwritten "Amanda" on her wooden nametag was the only thing that tipped me off.) I was curious to know more about how she'd gone about making her idea a reality and what her plans were for the future of the restaurant, so I introduced myself. She was kind enough to meet with me and answer my questions late last week.

How did you come up with the idea for Amanda's?

I'd wanted to someday run a business that had a social and environmental mission ever since college when I was inspired by a book I read by Tom Chapel, the founder of Tom's of Maine. So I always had that in the back of my mind. I went into technology when I graduated from college because that's where there was great opportunity to learn business -- I figured I needed to learn about business first and then I could figure out how to bring in the social mission.

I went back to business school because I wanted to focus on businesses with a social mission and Stanford has a really great social responsibility/public management program. After my first year, I ended up doing my summer internship at Niman Ranch, a natural meats company located in Oakland. That was the same summer that the movie Supersize Me came out and that I read Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation.

I got to do some ride-alongs on the Niman Ranch delivery trucks that summer. We came up to Berkeley and went to Chez Panisse and Whole Foods and some other really nice grocery stores and I realized that that quality of food was not reaching many people, and definitely not reaching the people Schlosser writes about in Fast Food Nation. So that's when I started really thinking about this need. Then I spent my second year of business school focusing on building a business plan for the restaurant, researching the market, and talking to everyone in the restaurant industry. When I graduated from business school, I decided to actually start implementing the plan.

Once you'd had the idea for the restaurant, what was the path to making it a reality?

I think almost everyone who saw the movie Supersize Me had the same idea - that was the clear reaction. But the restaurant industry is really challenging and a lot of people who had the same idea probably didn't pursue it because it's so tough - there's a lot of competition and profit margins are slim --that's what I found out after studying it more in business school. But I also knew that I had the passion to do it anyway.

There are just hundreds of people who've helped build this. The restaurant has my name on it but it's definitely a community effort. In business school there were probably half a dozen classmates of mine and also people in other graduate programs helped put the business plan together. It was very well-researched which I think gave me confidence in it as well as giving a lot of other quality people the confidence to invest in the business both financially and with their time as advisors or as the consultants that helped design the menu and helped design the space.

Counter At Amanda's

How much of that designing and visioning did you do while you were at Stanford and how much did you do after?

Most of it was after. We had the vision of "Whole Foods meets In-N-Out Burger" as what we wanted to create but in terms of making that more tangible, it all happened after I graduated.

Was it difficult to find funding; did you find that process painful?

I actually found the process fun. I like meeting new people and talking to them. There were definitely a lot of people that I talked to that were not interested and that had a lot of fears about investing in a restaurant. Although everyone thinks that restaurants have a really high failure rate, they actually have a similar failure rate to other start-up businesses. The difference is that the failures are so much more public, more visible--people see the restaurant open up and then they see it close its doors. But ten little start-up software companies could fail and you'd never know they existed in the first place! That preconception made the fundraising a little more difficult. So the people that invested had to be really passionate about the concept and about the team.

How long did it take between when you had the idea and when Amanda's actually opened?

Four years. I was in business school for a year researching and putting the business plan together and then it took two years to find the location, several months to negotiate the lease and get the permitting and then some time to construct it.

How big is your team?

There are hundreds of people who made it happen though mostly they don't play an active role at this point. We have some advisors who I talk to every month or so. But on a day-to-day basis it's me and the team in the restaurant -- about 20 people.
I have an amazing assistant manager named Peter and he and I did all the hiring and training for our team.

What was the most surprising thing about the process of creating this type of restaurant?

I really think the surprising thing is that everything went as smoothly as it did. Our operations and our team are really amazing.

What has been the hardest part?

Well, before we opened the biggest challenge was finding the location. We knew that it had to be in the right location with great accessibility and walking traffic to supply the masses of people we need to be successful. We knew that what we were creating was not going to be a destination in and of itself - people are just not going to spend half an hour looking for a parking spot to buy a hamburger! At the time, competition for commercial real estate was really stiff. We looked at lots of spots where the landlord chose Starbucks or Peet's Coffee over us.

The hardest thing now is that my team and I have put so much of our hearts and effort into this that it's hard when people are not happy, when we're not satisfying people. There are so many different things--for example, some people like crunchy fries, some people like not-crunchy fries. That surprised me because I had never managed a restaurant before. That's definitely the hardest thing for me; I probably take things a little more personally than I should. I'm trying not to do that as much. But it's also balanced by the customers who are so supportive of what we're doing and so excited about it.

What are your plans for the future of Amanda's? Do you envision it becoming either a chain or a franchise?

That is the intention. We want to be able to grow this and, honestly, we need to get to scale to be able to offer affordable prices. We want to bring this food and this sort of feel-good environment to lots more people. Franchising is probably a no, at least not early on. We really want to focus on quality and build the brand and I think that's harder to do as a franchise. But we are considering next locations now.

May I ask where you're considering opening the next Amanda's?

Definitely in the Bay Area. Ideally, something that is somewhat close to where we are now - that's important from a management perspective and for delivery and that sort of thing. So somewhere either in the East Bay or San Francisco would be great.

Amanda's Menu Board

Berkeley can be a hard place to open new businesses because a lot of people are pretty anti-development. What has your reception from the community been like?

I have felt nothing but support from the City of Berkeley and from the majority of people here. The mayor comes in to the restaurant and so does the head of economic development. We actually got honorable mention at the Berkeley Sustainability Summit for modeling sustainability so I've felt very supported.

What I like about being in Berkeley is that it is activist central and people really care about our social and environmental mission and they push us on it. I know that it's hard for people who aren't in business on a day-to-day basis to understand the trade-offs that have to be made but that's okay because it's good to have people who care and who ask the questions. You can get wrapped up in the business and then it's easy to be tempted to give up some of your values in trying to be successful. But being in a community like this means that people take the trouble to ask things like why we're using compostable plastic containers "for here"? As a result, we've just changed from using the compostable plastic containers for the "for here" salads to serving them in cardboard boats. The cardboard will reduce our compost waste and will also be more efficient from an environmental perspective than the PLA (compostable plastic) stuff is. So I think it's great.

There are actually a lot of start-up restaurant concepts have come out of Berkeley from Peet's Coffee to Naia, the gelato place. And, of course, Chez Panisse.

Compostable Containers Explained

Amanda's seems to be a melting pot of sorts. I see a pretty diverse mix of customers -- Berkeley high kids, UC students, local professionals, young parents, hippies, security guards, and people who look like they'd be equally at home in the McDonalds up the street. Is that what you expected?

It's what I hoped! It's interesting because we thought that women would be our core customer (and I think they still are though I haven't spent enough time analyzing our customer base and actually counting customers) because women tend to care more about their health and make a lot of the restaurant decisions for their families and co-workers but it has been even more diverse than I expected. That's one of the things I like about being in Berkeley--we're not only bringing healthy food to people who already eat healthfully, there are also so many different people here that we can start actually making a change in the way some people are eating.

How is business?

It's good. It's been great this year. It was really great when we first opened. But just like all the restaurants around here, we have felt the impact of the economy. The seasonality of the students is also a big thing for us--the winter months are going to be a bit more challenging for us. But our price point is pretty low, it's a hamburger economy like everyone talks about, so we're really well-positioned. We're trying to cut costs and be as efficient as we can now. The good part about that is that it's setting us up to run the business even more efficiently in the future as we grow.

Grilled Chicken Sandwich

It seems as though the big fast food chains are constantly offering some new thing - salads, yogurts, chalupas, some new regionally-inspired take on a hamburger or chicken sandwich, etc. Do you have plans to expand Amanda's menu?

We have some ideas of thing we could do and, in fact, we're about to add coffee and tea. But at the same time, we are really trying to keep thing simple from an operational perspective. Those big companies are trying to eke out the next 1% of sales but we have so much growth to do just in what we're offering now. We do have our seasonal salad which changes. But I don't think we're going to make any drastic changes any time soon.

Have you considered listing where you source your different ingredients from on your menu or your web site?

It's a balance, we try to talk about it on our web site but also not everyone wants to know. I'd rather source things locally (and it's cheaper to do that!) but you can't get organic tomatoes locally all year round or local organic apples so sometimes they have to come from New Zealand because we offer our apple fries all year long.

It's interesting -- everyone is so enamored of Niman ranch. If you say you buy your beef from Niman Ranch, people automatically assume that it was raised up in Marin County but in reality their meats come from ranches all around the country. We source our meat with a local family-owned distributor that sources its meats similarly to the way Niman Ranch does. So if people ask, we tell them our beef is from the Midwest and raised all-naturally. The veggies are as local as we can get them - they're sourced through a local produce company. But we don't go to the farmers market. I know that Bobby G (of Bobby G's Pizzeria around the corner) does, though and I am amazed! I don't know how he finds the time to do that - I am very impressed. I would like to learn more about it. We want to continuously improve - there are always things we can do better.


Have you put a lot of effort into marketing?

Not too much yet other than our signs in front of our location and the great reviews we've received thus far. This is going to be the year of marketing. Early on, we had more sales than we expected and we wanted to focus on making sure that we were doing everything right and pleasing our customers and keeping costs under control. But now my team does not need me in the restaurant - I'm actually in the way when I'm there. So I'm going to be spending less time there - for their sake and also so that I can get more involved in the community and do more marketing and start looking at more growth.

We did get a lot of great PR early on. We're going to be on View From the Bay in February - that will be neat. That plus word of mouth... That is why I really wanted to focus on our service because that's what keeps people coming back. If we can provide a great product and great service then hopefully, we should not have to market ourselves too much. But at the same time there are people right in this area who don't know we're here so we do have some work to do.

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

Well, one thing that I didn't mention is that everything we do, all the decisions we make in the restaurant are based on our goal of creating a healthy community. For example, when we're deciding whether to buy local or to buy organic, that is what we use as our decision-making metric. This goal of a healthy community is something that we're trying to foster with our own customers and with our employees - we got all our staff trial memberships to the YMCA and Funky Door Yoga to encourage them to exercise. And they're really inspiring - most of them find more time to exercise than I do! Our team really makes us what we are - we'd be nowhere without them.