March 8, 2011 was a very dark day in Oak Brook, Illinois as citizens awoke to the news that Subway had surpassed their beloved, hometown McDonald’s as the world’s largest restaurant chain. True, McDonald’s still sells more annually—for now—but Subway is expanding rapidly in places like China, Germany and Mexico. This is a problem that extends beyond Grimace’s 401(k). Btw, wtf is that dude on? McDonald’s being thumbed by Subway really bums me out. And not because I’m addicted to McGriddles. It’s because Subway is a painfully boring place to withdraw from your calorie bank, starting with that sanitized bread smell and ending with a corral of obnoxious condiments that pretty much all taste the same. That syrupy sweet onion sauce? It’s got nothing on the Big Mac special sauce. The rubbery Italian B.M.T.? No match for the genre-skipping, 1-in-a-million Filet-O-Fish. That’s fried fish topped with American cheese. You cannot deny that it works.
So OK, there’s all sorts of health implications here. And the fact that it’s still all fast food. You shouldn’t eat fast food, like ever. But people do, including overseas. And now that Subway is larger than McDonald’s, Subway is representing America. Boring America.
But there’s hope! Two new fast food concepts have launched in NYC—with eyes on major expansion down the line. They’re “scalable” as the editors of Franchise Times would say. They are also pretty damn enjoyable on their own. So maybe in 2096 one of them will be kicking Subway to the curb. It’s pretty unlikely, but one thing is certain—they aren’t boring.
“At the end the of the day, it’s just bread, butter, and cheese,” says Melt Shop managing partner Spencer Rubin of his quick-serve grilled cheese stand that opened a few weeks ago in the courtyard of a massive bank in Midtown. And it’s true—his signature three-cheese sandwich is a simple combination of Gruyère, fontina, and goat cheese propped up with sweet oven-roasted tomatoes. Slices of crusty, oily sourdough keeps it all together. Fancy grilled cheese at restaurants is nothing new—there’s even a truck selling them in Los Angeles. Melt Shop differs slightly in that the model has all the signs of fast food, with each sandwich fitting snuggly in cardboard to-go boxes. (The initial menu features nine sandwiches like provolone with salami, buttermilk fried chicken and a tuna melt with basil and sharp Cheddar). There’s also an ingenious, though expensive, coffee milkshake with Ronnybrook Farm coffee ice cream and cold-brewed Stumptown coffee syrup. And though the side of tater tots is bland, even when doctored with fried parsley, it’s the type of All-American side order that you could see flying in Bangkok or Bahrain.
The people behind this conceptual hamburger chainlet have a number of ideas bouncing around their brains. Concept #1 (most obvious): Total customization. Ordering entails scanning a number of large LCD displays and choosing a patty (beef, lamb, pork, salmon, veggie) and any of a number of 20 seasonal fillings called scoops—these include exotic/offbeat toppings including paneer (Indian cheese), Chinese-style braised kale, and avocado with chili mango. Selecting from eight cheeses and 12 condiments like tzatziki and salsa verde allows for over 140 million combinations. A mind-bending stat.
Concept #2: Un-junking junk food. Plenty in the fast food game have wheeled out healthy alternatives, but 4Food takes things to the next level. Portion size and nutritional transparency is essential. They do not serve double burgers. You simply cannot order them. Burgers are on the smaller size, especially for a starting price around six bucks. And a detailed breakdown of the nutritional information appears on the “smart receipt”—including fat and calories for each component.
Concept #3: Social dining. With social media integration becoming essential to small business owners, 4Food takes it way further than maintaining an active Twitter account. A two-story screen displays relevant Tweets and Foursquare check-ins at the location. But the coolest social media hook is the concept of the “Buildboard” displaying the 10 most popular burger creations—each with snappy names like The Meganator and Lamb of God. Patrons are encouraged to send their friends their creations via social media lines, with a 25-cent credit given for each burger they “sell.” To quote a famous burger chain slogan, the triad of concepts is a little meat-on-top-of-meat in one sitting. But if one or two hit, you could be seeing a Buildboard set up in Shibuya in the near future.