BALTIMORE – After 27 years in the packaged food business, the founders of Amy’s Kitchen expanded into foodservice with the opening of Amy’s Drive Thru this past June. Modeled after a classic fast-food restaurant, the concept offers a menu of burgers, shakes and fries made with organic and non-bioengineered ingredients. Even the employee uniforms are made with organic, fair trade cotton.
“Just like Amy’s Kitchen, it started with the same idea to make a better alternative to what’s out there,” said Susan Grelock, senior manager of communications planning for Amy’s Kitchen. “Basically rethinking the whole approach to fast-food but still end up with what people want when they go to an American drive-thru.”
Founded by Andy and Rachel Berliner in 1987, Petaluma, Calif.-based Amy’s Kitchen manufactures vegetarian frozen entrees and snacks, desserts, candy bars, cookies, vegetarian burgers, soups, ice creams and more. Each of the more than 250 products is either certified organic or made with organic ingredients, and many options are gluten-free, vegan or low in sodium.
The idea to open a restaurant had been simmering for several years, Grelock said during a panel discussion at Natural Products Expo East, held Sept. 16-19 in Baltimore.
|Susan Grelock, senior manager of communications planning for Amy’s Kitchen|
“The drive-thru project was two years in the making, once we decided to go for it,” she said. “It was definitely a lot of work, especially with the veggie burger. Our original goal was to make sure anyone who might crave a fast-food burger would go and get this veggie burger and be satisfied and find it to be really delicious. We had probably a thousand taste tests just for the patty.”
Amy’s Drive Thru opened on June 20 in Rohnert Park, Calif., a market Grelock described as “working class America.”
“We’re right off the freeway, where there are a lot of drive-thrus and gas stations,” she said. “It’s not what you’d call your basic organic food market, and that was definitely by design. We just felt like if it was going to be a success in Rohnert Park, it was going to be a success anywhere.”
In addition to veggie burgers and fries, the chain offers burritos, pizza, macaroni and cheese, salads and chili bowls, with many gluten-free, vegan and non-dairy options. Ninety-five percent of the menu is organic, Grelock said.
“The drive-thru is definitely able to take advantage of the sourcing team at Amy’s Kitchen,” she said. “We have this really deep relationship with the farmers who grow our vegetables and grains and beans for us, and I think that’s been a real boon to the drive-thru, that we have that that we can call on. The sourcing team is seasoned, and one of the things they’re known for is being able to create win-win partnerships with farmers.”
The menu was developed by chefs who have worked with Amy’s Kitchen for years, she added.
“Most of us are involved in testing and tasting,” Grelock said. “The owners actually read every piece of fan mail we get, and they’re pretty tapped into what people are asking for. In the drive-thru, they’re talking to people and hearing what people like. We already have some new things in the works. We’re going to do some breakfast items and some things people have expressed interest in.”
The company plans to open more Amy’s Drive Thru restaurants over time, most likely near its manufacturing facilities in Oregon, California, Idaho and New York, Grelock said.
“We make the burgers, the buns, all of the raw materials for the foods we make, the pasta, the cheese sauce, the burrito wraps,” she said. “So we’ll probably grow near our facilities because that’s where we can provide.”
In addition to building brand awareness and leveraging synergies, the restaurant drives engagement between the company’s founders and their consumers.
“Can you imagine having a frozen food brand for 27 years and then finally having a storefront where you can go in and meet people and talk to them?” Grelock said. “It’s a lot of fun for Andy and Rachel to be face to face with many of their consumers.”