A picture caption accompanying a Food section article Sunday about new restaurant trends transposed the identifications of Buz Kroner and Dave Roberts of the Fresher Cooker.
"Cheeseburger, large fries and a chocolate shake to go." -- Fast food patron, circa 1955
"Oriental pasta salad with low-sodium soy sauce and a brewed decaffeinated coffee. For here." -- Fast food patron, circa 1985 We are entering a new era. The burger and its accouterments, long the pivots of American fast food, may be getting upstaged.
After all, the burger palace has already succumbed to salad bars and baked potatoes. And there's a limit to what you can serve at McDonald's before the place becomes something else.
Besides, there is a new breed of restaurant on the fast-food horizon, where the deep fat fryer is obsolete. At least two examples of this realignment have recently opened in the Washington area: Yankee Noodle Dandy, a fast-food fresh-pasta shop in Rockville's Montgomery Mall, and The Fresher Cooker, a franchise restaurant in Wheaton that serves a mix from saute'ed vegetables to taco dogs.
These are the transition restaurants for the new nutrition-minded fast-food trend. These are not "health food" restaurants -- as their owners will readily admit -- and some of the food they serve is far from nutritionally pure. Instead they are restaurants attempting to serve a mass market (so far, it's been mostly women) fresh, flavorful food, quickly and inexpensively. And they both have big plans for franchise development, using the central-kitchen concept, where the food is prepared in a commissary and shipped to each store.
Yankee Noodle and The Fresher Cooker are quite different in their approach, execution and result. But a look at each may be an indication of the variety to come.
Just as the deep-fat french fryer made the fast food industry, the Pasta Chef could make fast-food pasta take off, says Mark Caraluzzi, food consultant and recipe developer for Yankee Noodle Dandy. In fact, says Yankee Noodle president Mario Cardullo, technological advances have been the linchpin of the fast-food industry's success. Burger shops did it in part with french fryers, upscale cookie shops are doing it with convection ovens.
With the help of a building engineer, Caraluzzi and Cardullo invented the Pasta Chef, a new machine that cooks freshly made pasta in about a minute, on the spot. It sits as the centerpiece of Yankee Noodle Dandy, a flashy red, white and blue stall in the burgeoning Boulevard Cafe section of Montgomery Mall that resembles the American Cafe in its geometric-and-neon style (the designer was the same).
The stainless steel cooker is about the size and shape of a metal trash can. When an order is made, a Yankee Noodle staff member places a handful of freshly made pasta into one of eight baskets set into the cooker. Underneath the baskets, boiling water is constantly being infused and rotated. The pasta is cooked until al dente, then lifted out of the baskets. During busy hours, eight dishes can be prepared simultaneously.
From there the pasta goes into a warmed Silverstone skillet where it is mixed with oil (to prevent it from sticking to itself) and bright, blanched vegetables, topped with one of Yankee Noodle's sauces -- a spicy oriental sauce, chili sauce, maybe the tomato and mushroom sauce -- and served on a plastic platter. Most of the dishes are under $3.
To make the pasta, Yankee Noodle uses what Cardullo calls a "state-of-the-art pasta machine." Cardullo and Caraluzzi traveled to Italy to buy the $10,000 piece of equipment, which can churn out about 150 pounds of pasta daily. Unlike other pasta makers which are extruders, this machine kneads a full sheet of dough into what looks like a roll of paper towels. Cardullo says this system produces a more tender pasta. The roll is then inserted into a pasta cutter which snips the dough into widths, fettucine or linguine, for example.
The tiny restaurant space is also equipped with a sophisticated computer system, hooked up to Cardullo's home computer. He can receive sales figures at 15-minute intervals; he uses the system for inventory and cost control. In fact, says Cardullo, he is more computerized than some of his suppliers.
As for the food, Yankee Noodle's is fast food for adults, says Cardullo, director of energy, transportation and coal exports at the Department of Energy and previously a part-time cooking teacher. Caraluzzi chose top-notch ingredients -- Berio olive oil, fresh produce from L&M, beef from Evans & Van Cleeff, sausages from Litteri's, fresh dill, basil and shiitake mushrooms. And he tested seven different kinds of canned Italian plum tomatoes, some of which were too watery, others of which weren't flavorful enough, before choosing Capri.
During the recipe-testing period, Caraluzzi experimented with the sauces in his home kitchen, hashed them over at informal tastings with Cardullo and held two formal tastings during the final stages, one with friends and investors, the other with children.
Concerned about preparing recipes low in sodium, Caraluzzi first made the sauces with zero added salt, but tasters indicated that the sauces tasted bland. A minimum of salt was added. On the other hand, the Noodles with Spicy Oriental Sauce were too spicy; the chili paste was toned down.
The meat sauce uses a lean grind, about 20 percent fat, says Cardullo. Low-sodium soy sauce is used for the oriental pasta dishes. Olive oil and peanut oil, two monounsaturated fats, are used in the pasta dishes, and safflower oil, a polyunsaturated oil, is used to finish the dish in the Silverstone skillets. And the stall sells brewed decaffeinated coffee.
Cardullo admits that some work still needs to be done in the nutrition department. Sometimes the vegetables and pasta are coated excessively with sauce, forming a pool of oil in the bottom of the dish, masking the flavor of the fresh vegetables and adding extra fat and calories. But Cardullo says he has ordered smaller ladles in the hopes of rectifying the problem.
Although the dishes have not been yet been analyzed for their nutrients, the consumer group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy has plans to develop the information for the public, perhaps by providing it on a tray liner. Of this unusual exchange between a consumer organization and a restaurant, Pat Kelley of Public Voice said that although the group "cannot promote a restaurant," it got involved in the project because it is interested in "promoting innovation."
With the exception of the Fettucine with Fresh Vegetables and Cream Sauce and the Fettucine with Chili Sauce and Sour Cream, most of the dishes get high nutrition marks, said Kelley. They are low in fat, high in fiber and high in nutrient-dense vegetables, she said. Kelley added, too, that the full-size portions may be overly generous (the five pasta dishes are available in half sizes, the pasta salads are not) and that the oil on the Noodles with Spicy Oriental Sauce and the amount of cream sauce should be lowered. Public Voice will be making those recommendations to Caraluzzi, she said.
Although Cardullo has plans to open a Yankee Noodle cafe in the Dupont Circle area in the fall -- with a central kitchen in the basement -- and then franchise the concept, he chose the Montgomery Mall location because of its economic feasibility. With the high square footage costs in other indoor eating malls, he wouldn't have made any money, Cardullo calculated.
But how can freshly prepared pasta dishes be served for less than $3? Caraluzzi says the reason is threefold: 1. Pasta dishes are artifically high priced to begin with; 2. the machines eliminate much of the labor cost; and 3. Yankee Noodle doesn't use a lot of meat, which tends to increase prices.
Just opened in December, Yankee Noodle is still going through its shakedown period. But Cardullo is hopeful the concept will be successful and that diners won't tire of pasta. In fact, he has already registered the Yankee Noodle Dandy trademark abroad. Japan may someday be home to red, white and blue pasta parlors.
Buz Kroner and Dave Roberts are no strangers to the corporate packaging of concepts in fast-food management. Kroner used to work for Family Entertainment Center, which owns Chuck E. Cheese restaurants, and was also a regional director with Wendy's. Roberts is an ex-lawyer who also used to work for Family Entertainment Center.
Together they have formed Quick Service Concepts (patterned after QSC, the restaurant acronym for "quality, service and cleanliness," says Roberts), the franchise owner of The Fresher Cooker for Maryland, Virginia and the District. Begun in Louisville, there are now Fresher Cookers in Indiana and Texas. And R.J. Reynolds Industries, owners of Kentucky Fried Chicken, has bought the franchise rights in Florida, parts of Georgia, Philadelphia and Chicago.
The Fresher Cooker is a surprising sight on the commercial stretch of Georgia Avenue in Wheaton. The previous site of six other restaurants, the renovated Fresher Cooker has a greenhouse look to it on the outside with lots of windows. Inside, the decor is bright yellow and green, with plants and carpeting that looks like Astro Turf.
In its operation and counter appearance, The Fresher Cooker resembles any fast-food restaurant. Orders are called out by employes into a microphone and Kroner and Roberts have calculated the order-to-serve time at 30 seconds.
In terms of food, it is an ecletic mix. Spaghetti and meat sauce for the kids, cheese nachos for a Mexican flair and plain saute'ed vegetables for the purists.
True, there are no fried foods (except the bacon) or hamburgers on the menu here. And there are fresh, crisp vegetables, sandwiches on whole-wheat bread (although the Wonder Bread equivalent of whole wheat bread), pasta dishes, a full salad bar with two diet dressings and fresh fruit. But there are also hot dogs, baked potatoes slathered with toppings such as cheese and bacon and saute'ed vegetables doused with a salty house topping consisting of margarine, artificial sour cream (made with hydrogenated coconut oil, a highly saturated fat) and garlic powder. There is also an Ice Cream Fandango, a chocolate chip cookie sandwich, this time with ice milk in the middle.
And although these characteristics seem to contradict The Fresher Cooker menu which reads "Discover a new way to enjoy a fast meal -- one that's fresh, light and really delicious," Roberts says it was never intended it to be a health-food restaurant, that they wanted a "mainstream menu to accommodate all kinds of people." They are trying to capture the fast-food-goer whose doctor has said, "Harry, you gotta stop eating hamburgers for lunch," Roberts says. In fact, he says, they have even gotten customer requests for hamburgers.
The kitchen is a highly controlled operation. On the side of each microwave oven are cooking instructions for each food, each of which takes from 6 to 30 seconds, and the walls are covered with detailed diagrams on how to assemble the various sandwiches and dishes.
A tiny central kitchen fuels the operation; in it the cook prepares batches of salad dressings and soups from laminated recipe cards. Kroner and Roberts have plans to relocate and expand the kitchen once the franchise starts growing.
Unlike other fast-food restaurants, says Kroner, The Fresher Cooker makes its own sauces and dressings; it doesn't pour the stuff out of cans. And the taco mixture is made from scratch, using meat from Washington Beef. Plus The Fresher Cooker's salad bar is assembled from fresh-cut (not pre-cut) vegetables.
Although Kroner and Roberts say they make their soups from scratch, the central kitchen larder is stocked with cans of Campbell's tomato soup and bouillon, which the cook says are used as the base for the minestrone and onion soups.
The prices, calculate the two, are slightly higher than conventional fast food, which typically runs about $3.25 and $3.35 per order. Lunch or dinner at The Fresher Cooker runs up an average tab of $3.80.
And the future of The Fresher Cooker? Kroner and Roberts have ambitious plans to open 61 locations in the next 5 1/2 years. They envision as many pseudo greenhouses as golden arches.