“The drive-thru is killing more people than the drive-by,” says South Central L.A. urban farmer Ron Finley. That proclamation may sound a little hyperbolic, but Finley’s on to something. The combined forces of poverty and lack of access to fresh, healthy options has laid waste to the American diet. Meanwhile, fast-food advertising is everywhere—on websites, billboards, school textbooks—penetrating deeply into the popular conscious, driving people to eat what Kogi chef Roy Choi likes to call “corrosive chemical waste” (also known as sugar, fats, and processed foods).
So what do we do? Some would say give up, accept that the U.S. food system is too far gone to be repaired, and that America’s addiction to unhealthy food runs irreparably deep.
Here’s what Roy Choi is doing: developing his own affordable, healthy fast-food chain, Loco’l, that embraces and connects with the community. Along with the help of Coi chef Daniel Patterson, Choi plans to develop and sell a $0.99 fast-food hamburger with a soft and squishy bun, but he’s going to do it the right way, with good ingredients and ethical practices. Think it sounds impossible? Remember, this is the man who started the food-truck revolution, convinced investors to fund a restaurant called Pot, and told the culinary elite that they were sucking their own dicks. Choi isn’t about pipe dreams. If we put our trust in anyone to get through to the kids and those in need of healthy food options, it would be this hip hop-addicted Korean-American.
The first branch of Loco’l will open in San Francisco in spring of 2015, and the second in Los Angeles a few months later. We spoke with Choi about the logistics of bringing healthy food—and a culture that champions good food—to the masses.
This interview has been condensed (but not by much).
Marketing plays a key role in fast food’s dominance. How do you plan to market Loco’l to the youth? How do you plan to penetrate the community and get people interested?
We’re not just trying to get the youth interested—we’re trying to reach everyone across the board. A part of the approach will be having Loco’l not take itself too seriously. What I can bring to Loco’l is honesty, a sense of humor, and trusting my instincts. We’ll search for a sound, a flavor, a feel, and a message that will connect. I think that’s a big problem sometimes with food—especially chef-driven food. It’s like, we as chefs have to make sure that people understand that this is a vegetable. Well, what if we don’t do that? And what if you as a chef know that you’re serving great food, but instead of making everyone kiss the ring, you just fucking don’t worry about that shit and just make it fun?
Take going to a concert, for example. The musician isn’t lecturing you that you need to understand the scales and the melody and all this. They’re just fucking playing the song and letting people pass joints, and hang out, and have fun, and make out, and do their thing.
So how we’re going to approach marketing is trust our instincts and trust our gut, and the money will support these creative endeavors. We’ll create a think tank and we already have some really great people on board.
That’s a lot like what you’re approach has been with Kogi, no?
Yeah, Kogi is a part of that—but Kogi is really raw. Kogi is straight from the streets; it’s a mixture of true geekiness and true street. I think what we’re going to do with Loco’l is harness that same thing, but also use some of the same methodology as fast-food companies. Now, we consider ourselves a fast-food company, so we have to understand the rules of the game.
For example, we’re going to look at toys [like the ones you get in a Happy Meal]. But then, instead of offering the current toys that exist, maybe we’re going to use local artists to create toys that speak to the brand, and that speak to ourselves. We already started with some characters—like Mr. Potato Head. The Loco’l guy is just a guy, and each season or each city or wherever he goes he can change, and he can become a she, and she can become a he. And he can have a mustache, or a beard—the character can be whatever it wants to be.
You said you would link up with local artists to do the toys. Are there other influential people from other industries that you would want to collaborate with? Would you want to get musicians involved?
Of course. Music is a huge part of my life. We’ll collaborate with those musicians and bands where part of the audience that they’re already speaking to is the audience that we want Loco’l to speak to, so it would just be merging those energies together and speaking in one voice. Just like how McDonald’s collaborates with Oreos and M&Ms to do McFlurry’s. We’ll partner with other companies to create campaigns, but we’ll do it more organically and do them more like street-art collabs. We’ll partner with musicians that are friends of mine, or that I admire and would love to meet. And then we’ll collaborate with artists, spiritual guides, wellness teachers.
It’s not just about selling the food. It’s about creating a culture—a new culture around food.
And it won’t be something that just has an end result in mind—that’s the biggest thing about Loco’l. Everything we’re doing is not just about an end result. It’s not just about selling the food. It’s about creating a new culture around food. Part of our marketing strategy will be not knowing what the results are going to be. Whereas in a lot of corporations, you have to know what your results are going to be. That’s the huge difference with Loco’l. We’re just doing it to try to create a new energy and a new culture. And not just new, but honor the culture and the energy that already exists within the city, and bring those in and give them a place to kind of, you know, breathe.
Who, specifically, would you want to collaborate with?
I was just talking with Evidence and Alchemist, the Step Brothers, yesterday. I mean, straight up, like, they love breakfast. So right now, I’m thinking: Why wouldn’t Evidence and Alchemist curate breakfast for Loco’l? You know what I’m saying? That shit would be so dope. And everyone who listens to their music—that’s a whole core audience that wants to be eating at Loco’l. Why wouldn’t Ev and Alch be curating breakfast in some way, some how?
Right now, I’m thinking: why wouldn’t Evidence and Alchemist curate breakfast for Loco’l?
I mean, why not have Raekwon in there? Which artists all depends on the situation. Maybe there’s a local artist from the neighborhood? When we open in San Francisco, for example, maybe we look at who we feel really represents the city and who we feel we link with and connect with. Who would people feel good about when they see them within Loco’l, if they hear their music in Loco’l? Again, it could be unknown local artists, it could be rappers like San Quinn, Mac Mall, and E-40. I know the San Francisco symphony is pretty good, so maybe we’ll work with them. Maybe we’ll work with Chinese musicians and artists, because the Chinese community is huge in San Francisco. The goal is connecting with the neighborhood.
You’ve said that you want to make a 99 cent burger, but beef prices are on the rise, and using better ingredients is intrinsically more costly. Do you have a plan on how you’ll be able to keep prices low across the board?
We’ll be starting to go into the lab very soon, and we’re starting to put all of our cards on the table. And the one thing that keeps coming to our heads is: You know what, this is a huge endeavor we’re getting ourselves into. How are we ever going to do it? All the chips are stacked up against us. But then, I always think about it like this: If we take that paranoia away, and we really look at it, at the end of the day we run our restaurants. We are chefs. We have our relationships. We already use purveyors and suppliers and farmers and ranchers. So it’s really going back to those relationships and harnessing them, and working within the community, and talking to our purveyors and our suppliers. And talking to our fellow chef community. You know, this is not just about Daniel and I—it’s all of us collectively. It’s about you. Have you got any resources, First We Feast. If there’s anything you know? If there’s a small farmer out there, you know, that’s willing to grow with us, we want to hear about them. It’s about working together.
We don’t want to be fast food plus. We want to be fast food, straight up.
But again, we don’t want to be fast food plus. We want to be fast food, straight up. We want to make a $0.99 burger.
So you don’t want to be Chipotle?
It’s not that we don’t want to be Chipotle as far as the food goes. As far as the price goes, we want to be McDonald’s. We want to be Carl’s Jr. Their food is 99 cents and $2—a whole family meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken that can feed four to six people is $12. And that shit is real. That shit is happening every single day in every single block in every single city. We just want to be that, but with a whole new ethos and philosophy. So yeah, we need something at 99 cents. We need something at $2, $4, $6. But, does that have to be the same exact thing?
That’s where we come into play. We’re chefs, so why does 99 cents have to be a calorie-ridden, gut-wrenching, huge burger? Why does it have to be quantity over quality always in life? And these companies have brainwashed us to believe that. So, really, it’s about us figuring out what is it that we can do for 99 cents. Why can’t it be vegetables for 99 cents? Why can’t it be a starter or something really amazing to snack on for 99 cents, something that’s healthy, delicious, and fun, and has an iconic name and that’s addictive and that everybody wants.
A whole family meal at KFC that can feed four to six people is $12. And that shit is real. That shit is happening every single day in every single block in every single city.
As far as the burger—yeah, meat prices are high. But that’s where we really have to go in and challenge ourselves to figure this out. The first thought is to cut the beef patty with grains and tofu, but we don’t want anyone to know that when they’re eating it. We want you to feel like you’re eating a regular burger. That’s why Daniel is in the lab working with all of his knowledge. He and I are bouncing ideas off each other.
For example, we’re thinking about a chicken McNugget-type thing. But why does it have to be all chicken? Maybe we create an emulsion with rice, and we create air within it, and they become more like puffs, instead of just dense nuggets. Just by reducing the animal protein factor, but also using a technique as a chef to make it delicious. And I think, at the end of the day, that’s where the difference is—versus maybe a corporation or a business looking at it, and a chef looking at it. We’re not looking at it as value-driven and that’s the only factor. That we have to give you this, and because of that we have to compromise our decisions and our ethics on raising livestock and growing, modifying seeds to meet bottom-line standards, because we can only follow this process, and we’re going to substitute loads of sugar and loads of salt and sodium to supplement that.
For us, it’s like, we have these ingredients to work with. Now as cooks and as chefs, let’s go into the kitchen and have some fun and let’s figure this out. Because that’s what we do everyday—and that’s what we’re going to do with Loco’l. We’re going to go into the lab and say,’ Okay, we want to make the best fucking chicken nugget ever, and this is how much money we have to do it.’ And then, here’s the arsenal of products that we can really turn to. And then we’ll go in there, and test them, and make it, and then we’re going to keep cooking, and cooking, and cooking, and cooking until we come up with a bag of, like, fried goodness where everyone just falls on the floor.
At MAD you talked about how diet relates to academic performance, job performance, and self image. Is that why you’re taking this project on?
Chefs never really had a voice before; now we do. We have a platform that changes shit. And sometimes, in a kitchen, if the place is going down, the people look at you—as a chef you have this kind of captain’s instinct to step up—and this is kind of what happened to me with Loco’l.
I grew up in a Korean family and no matter if we were rich or poor, we went up and down throughout our lives. And the food was always an essential thing, and that goes back to our culture. In Asian culture, it’s absurd to even contemplate not eating a nutritious meal because that’s a direct link to your ability to focus and use your brain—you know, for studying. So I think about that, then look at all the food that we’re feeding these kids in America, and then I look at the schools that are struggling, the overcrowded classrooms, and cutting programs, and the lack of resources. Maybe we can’t fix all that, because the other stuff is all caught up in politics, but then there’s the one factor I feel we can fix. If we start feeding our kids better, and our students better, that’s a start. On top of all that, you can’t feed kids chemical corrosive waste and expect them to pay attention.
The only reason we’re eating this food is because companies pay hundreds of billions of dollars in advertising to convince us that this is right.
As Americans, we never consider that sometimes the actual things that you eat affect the way that you think. But it’s true. And the only reason we’re eating this food is because companies pay hundreds of billions of dollars in advertising to convince us that this is right. Lobbyists have spent billions and billions of dollars to get these institutions to use their purveyors, factories, kitchens, and modified plants to serve you their food, so that the money just stays in those circles. You know what I’m saying? That’s the fucking truth. And that’s the only reason we’re eating like this. It’s not because we want to eat like this; it’s because we’ve been brainwashed and convinced that this is the only thing available. And what we’re saying as chefs is: ya’ll are fucking crazy! We’re sitting here in the middle of a field filled with beautiful food, and you’re out there serving people poison and corrosive waste. And you’re saying that that is all there is to eat?
Through all that you get people feeling horrible about themselves. You know, underperforming in school, having issues with ADD, skin problems, weight problems, health problems—then that moves to the next sector which is relying on prescription drugs. We’re just trying to be chefs about this, man, and feed you. And show you all these beautiful ingredients and this beautiful food.
To us, it’s easy. Like, when you ask questions like, “how are you going to do this?” or “how are you going to cook?” or “what are you going to do to supplement all of this?”—to us, that part is a no-brainer. Because that’s just us cooking. That’s like a porn-star fucking; you know, it’s natural.
Is there one chain you look at and say “I really love this burger and I want to do something like that”?
In-N-Out and Shake Shack make two great burgers, straight up. But they’re not two bucks or 99 cents. I mean, In-N-Out might be. But we’re not trying to be that, you know? We’re trying to be something different. We’re not doing this to win awards or have accolades as chefs. If we wanted to get in to the fancy fast-food thing, that would be easy, you know? I want to do this to be on an everyday basis with our brothers and sisters out there, all throughout America and the world, that are eating fast food on a daily basis. I want to get into that lane with McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken—all the places where a lot of people eat on a daily basis—and then see what we can do once we’re there.
A burger doesn’t have to be all meat from a cow that you’re treating like trash. We can raise animals better. We don’t have to modify plants. Everything doesn’t have to be about bigger, faster, stronger.
I want to show people and give people a little bit of a different option—an option that’s just as good, that speaks to them in the same way that these brands speak to them. I want Loco’l to become a part of their lives. And then, hopefully through the decisions that we make and the food that we serve, it will force fast-food companies to look at their practices. This is not a fight. This is a good thing. I look at this as a little bit of an intervention and a rehab for some of these companies. Hopefully, we can get strong enough to where we’re showing them, you know what, a burger doesn’t have to be all meat from a cow that you’re treating like trash. We can raise animals better. We don’t have to modify plants. Everything doesn’t have to be about bigger, faster, stronger. We can get back to some core values of eating and cooking. We as chefs are able to do it, so maybe if we’re able to do it, and you have some knowledge, we can all link together and figure it out.
You said that you wanted to have community workshops at Loco’l. What do you envision those being?
Off-hours yoga classes, maybe in the mornings. Spiritual workshops. Because, sometimes, spirituality becomes not the most important thing, but to me, spirituality is huge. So I’d like to make that a part of the business plan—for our staff and the community to have really great spiritual guidance. I’d like to have wellness classes, yoga classes; to have teachings, readings, work with local libraries, work with innovators, host workshops. Kind of like a community rec center.