What do you call fast food when it's still fast and it's still food, but when it does away with all the bad associations -- nutritional, corporate, aesthetic -- that have plagued it for decades? You call it Loco'l. Born out of a partnership between San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson and L.A. chef Roy Choi (with help from a couple of legendary chef friends), Loco'l is designed to offer a new kind of fast food that depends on fresh ingredients and the culinary skills of real chefs but retains the ideas of quickness, convenience and, most important, low price. Following one of the most successful crowdfunded food campaigns ever, the first restaurant is opening in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. late this summer, with a location in San Francisco's Tenderloin district following in the fall. I have run into both Daniel and Roy in various culinary circles -- I host food salons, and I'm beginning work on a book about innovation and creativity in the food world. For this story, we discussed their philosophies, community outreach, price point and what their version of the 99-cent burger will be. They even shared an exclusive with me (shhh... they haven't told anyone yet).
Questlove: What's your concept for Loco'l?
Daniel Patterson: I have a charity foundation in San Francisco that teaches kids how to cook. We work with schools, but also with an organization that takes kids off of the street and gives them job training, counseling and support, but what it doesn't do is teach them how to feed themselves good food. I realized that we could teach them how to cook very basic things. But before you can cook something, you need to know what you want to cook. There's an eating problem in this country; all they know is what they grew up with. What if there was a fast food that was community-embedded? What if there was a way to do healthy food for not too much money? And then I went to [annual food symposium] MAD a year and a half ago and saw Roy talk about hunger, how there's whole parts of our country that really aren't given options the way the rest of the country is. I felt like I'd found my long-lost brother. I called him up and said, "Hey, I got this idea. What do you think?" And he's like, "Let's go." And that's it -- a fast-food restaurant cooking real food at the same price point as the other fast food places.
Questlove: That's amazing. There's a well-respected hip-hop artist who recently just lost both of his limbs, mainly because of his horrible diet, and he revealed to his doctor for twenty years straight that he's only been surviving off of gas-station food. Like, him eating pickles was his idea of having vegetables. So then where does your idea go to you actually making it a reality?
Roy Choi: Oh, we're deep in reality right now. We're still at this place where millions of our kids are still growing up in poverty without restaurants, without access to food. It's ridiculous in this time, with this information, with this technology, with all the resources and education and information and everything out there. So instead of looking at it from a cerebral point of view, we just got in and just started as if there were no barriers.
Patterson: Cooks are "get it done" people; like, "get it done yesterday." You're talking about going to a place like Watts, where they have one sit-down restaurant for 40,000 people. All they have is fast food and liquor stores. The guy that owns the building that we're going into is a friend of Roy's and very deep in the community. Roy went there first and got everyone's support. It's a very tight community, and they're like, "Yeah, we want this."
Questlove: So you had a meeting with the community leaders?Choi: Everyone -- from the triple OGs to the double OGs, the community leaders, the teachers, the mothers, the youngsters, the gangbangers, everyone. They're just like, "Yo, bring this shit right here. We got you."
Questlove: What types of foods are you going to try to introduce to them?
Choi: Right now, we have a whole society that's been eating preservatives and processed food, that's being brainwashed by billions of dollars of industry, and we can't just say, "Yo, eat this kale." So what we have to do is pick food in a structure that makes sense. But then inside the structure is real food. So, for example, there are chicken nuggets, but those chicken nuggets are made using really good birds, using rice flower to coat it, making a sauce out of real tomatoes and soybean and fermented chili paste. But they don't know any of this; they just think it's chicken nuggets.
Patterson: Our burger is 30 percent grains and tofu. The bun is made with whole grains, but then we smash it down a little bit so it has that "driving with one hand, eating a burger with the other" kind of feeling. You've got to go close to the cultural standards, 'cause like I think a lot of people make the mistake that it's either processed food or "everything has to be perfect" food. It's ridiculous. Sometimes I listen to people go on and on about the importance of how animals are treated in meat, and I totally agree with that in theory, but part of me is like, "Man, what about the human animals?" You're spending so much time concentrating on cows, but then there's whole parts of our country that we're not feeding real food. Maybe we start close to them; go to where they are and get them excited.
Choi: And the price point is important too. The price point is 99 cents to six bucks. Currently, there's what we call fast-food plus: there's a big difference between $2.49 for a triple cheeseburger at McDonald's and a seven-dollar burrito at Chipotle. So price is a big part of what Loco'l is. You know, whether you go to Asia or Europe, even South America and Mexico, you can eat cheap but well. We're just trying to translate that in a new way.
Questlove: Has anyone ever tried to do this before?
Patterson: Unbelievably, straight up no. Think of all of the amazing chefs in this country; no one has ever said, "I wanna open a fast food restaurant and go to places where there isn't any good food." With the fast-casual places, the business model is you go to all these places with high density and people who are affluent, and then you spread from there. We have a backwards business model: we could open 15 in South Central L.A. alone. Then you go to East Oakland, Detroit, North Saint Louis, the Bronx -- we could open 150 without going anywhere near an affluent area. It's not like there's no money there. They're spending money, but no one's giving them the option of something better. It just blows my mind.
Questlove: So what is the biggest challenge that you're facing to make this a reality?
Choi: There haven't really been any challenges, man, because when we get our minds on something, you can't stop the show. I already see neighborhoods filled with kids who, in seven years, will see a whole new world in front of them. Streets that were filled with liquor stores turning into fourth-wave coffee shops and artisan bakeries and providing jobs. The challenge for me is just staying at pace and realizing that the physical world has to catch up to what I see in my dreamworld. I think the only other challenge is the money side a little bit. It's been a heck of a road trying to convince investors -- not that people haven't been convinced and supported us. We have the best chefs in the world: Chad [Robertson, of Tartine], Daniel from Coi, and RenÃ© [Redzepi] from Noma. And then you got the X-factor, me, who's the street cook from L.A.
Patterson: We're including you in that group, Roy. Don't even...
Choi: Yeah, yeah. So you got the four of us, right? If the four of us said we were going to open a restaurant in Manhattan, San Francisco or Chicago -- you know, tasting menu, full bar -- we'd have checks for $10 million yesterday. But right now we're getting this cat-and-mouse: "OK, we'll give you this now, but we want to see the model proved." That's been kind of weird.
Questlove: How will you deal with supply and demand?
Choi: I run places where we open and there are lines out the door; every food person within 100 miles just ends up at my places. So I was almost warning them: "Yo, when we open [in Watts], there's going to be people here that you've never seen before. Are you guys cool with that?"
Questlove: Backwards gentrification.
Choi: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] Like, German tourists are going to get off the airplane and end up in Watts. But everyone's like, "We're ready for this."
Questlove: I'd love to see your version of the 99 cent burger. I'm very curious to see it from both angles: how people react to it and how you guys adjust to working within kind of a parameter.
Choi: A lot of it is zero waste on the food supply end. We know how to use every single peel and seed and the flesh and bone of everything -- stem, roots, top, everything. And so we're going to apply all that knowledge and science to this. Daniel and I are both in our early forties; we've been cooking 20 years each, respectively, and we're at the point where we want to give everything we've learned back to this -- not to a new fancy restaurant. So how do we reengineer how to feed the masses and then morph that into even further stuff? Get the fast food model going first in our inner city and grow that out to our bigger suburbs, and our malls, and our larger society, and then get that into schools, hospitals, prisons, supply chains...
Questlove: Is the endgame to spread this to a point where it spreads, or do you want to keep it local as long as you can?
Choi: I think it can be anything it wants to be. I see it being a spark to a movement. I see our business itself growing, but I think it also becomes like a hip-hop collective, where others will latch onto it.
Patterson: You know, we talk a lot about the food, and the food's super important, but also the economic aspect is really important. We're not just creating jobs; we're creating vocations. So you're bringing people from the community, you're training them, and now they've got experience in how to communicate, how to show up to work in a disciplined way. Suddenly there's a portal, so that they've maybe done two years at Loco'l and they're like, "Hey, I want to work in a different restaurant." And then Roy and I will set them up somewhere. And all of a sudden you have a flow of a totally different kind of community going into the restaurant community, which I think is really exciting. Because let's face it: the top level of chefs in our country is very white and very male. And a lot of that's basically access.
Questlove: I've actually dreamt of this moment happening. Last conversation I had with Magic Johnson, we were joking about the fact that all these businesses have had his name on them -- Magic Johnson Starbucks, Magic Johnson Fridays. He was explaining to me that he was especially proud of the Fridays, simply because he, as an athlete, was just jaw-dropped at the fact that he could never find a salad in the hood. It became his obsession in the '80s and '90s to find one farmers' market or one salad spot in the hood. He figured at least through Fridays, you could get a green salad. Ever since he told me that, it's always been in my head. So is this your idea of the American Dream?
Choi: Yeah. We want to create a new franchise model for each inner city we go into. So every single job in Watts is being offered to the residents of Watts: the contractor, the architect, the demolition crew, the dry-walling crew. All the money goes back into the community.
Patterson: Plus a percentage of profit. The community supports it; it supports the community. Everyone wins.
Choi: I got a piece of information for you that no one knows yet, but I figure you're the best person to share it with. Alchemist and Evidence from Dilated [Peoples], they're going to be our first celebrity endorsement. You know how Subway has Apolo Ohno and Michael Strahan? We're going to keep it underground to start, and Al and Ev are going to be like our first spokesmen, and they're going to have "The Al and Ev Sandwich." It's going to be dope. There you go, PAPER. That's your exclusive. Things like that, you reveal them when it feels right -- and how could it get more right than telling Questlove?