Special Report | September 2010 | By Sharon Olson

The 30-Day Challenge

Sharon Olson, president of Olson Communications, tests her will and waistline in a month-long experiment in which she only eats food from the top quick serves in the nation.

Five years ago, Supersize Me was becoming a mini cult classic based on what I thought was a ridiculous premise. Why would someone change their lifestyle to eliminate exercise, eat at only one restaurant, unequivocally take instructions from an order taker, and intentionally damage their health? So at the time, I invited one of my colleagues to join me eating at only quick-serve restaurants for a month, not changing either of our lifestyles in any way other than where we dined.

It was an enlightening and not unpleasant experiment. For my younger colleague, it was not much of a change in her convenience-driven lifestyle that included a lot of quick-service food. For me, it was terrifying. I remember on Day Zero before we began, I started to panic at the thought of no dark chocolate, no colorful vegetables, no wine with my meals, and, worst of all, eating from disposable tableware. Using the QSR 50 list gave us a lot more variety and at the end of the month, our follow-up health tests showed absolutely no changes in our general health. I was also six pounds thinner, probably a result of the portion control and lack of variety, but felt generally invigorated from the experience.

The experiment left me with a more enlightened perspective and some new favorite restaurants. Now, fast forward five years to present day.

When I chose to repeat the experiment five years later, I looked at this year’s QSR 50 list with some enthusiasm and the satisfaction of knowing that my five favorites were still on the list. I decided to ease into the culinary adventure by starting with my favorites: Chipotle, Einstein Bros., Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Panera.

Lots of things had changed, but some of my favorite menu items had not. Chipotle’s carnitas had not changed and they never should. I had traveled all over Mexico in the last five years and never found any better. And the menu had not become complicated, nor had the company branched out to other items that did not fit its focus. The food was authentic and the service never failed.

Einstein had branched out with new offerings, but all in the same context that never disappointed. In my first experiment, I became a creature of habit, always ordering the lox and bagel for breakfast, but I have to admit the new egg white breakfast wrap tasted so great, I had to add it to my morning repertoire during my second try this summer.

Starbucks had always been a mainstay for my favorite beverage and I knew the lingo, so ordering was easy. Five years ago the food failed again and again, but now I found some simple, delicious choices. The oatmeal with premium toppings is healthful and absolutely craveable.

“The woman who took my order remembered me, apologized, gave me a free wrap, and offered me a complimentary beverage while I waited. Talk about a heroic recovery!”

Understanding the language of the industry was a major challenge for me. It was like hearing a foreign language every time I approached a counter. After a couple of visits, the context provided some help, and if the line was long enough, I could listen to other customers order. After a while I began to understand one of the problems. I was often greeted with a line that sounded more like it was a script written by a corporate executive rather than a natural comment from the employee—repeated over and over all day long.

McDonald’s was ubiquitous and consistent. Apple slices with caramel dipping sauce became my fast snack favorite. I sometimes stocked my fridge with items from the dollar menu, which was simple and right sized for me. The fries will always be the gold standard in “food memories” for me.

Also high on the “food memory” list is White Castle. I grew up savoring those 5 cent burgers as a special treat with my dad. It was nice to know they were still served up hot, fresh, and in those cute little boxes, albeit costing a few pennies more.

At Panera, the food was almost always fabulous, but the lines were often daunting, especially at lunch, and avoiding the rush and choosing dinner meant there were often no more of those great cookies. Even though it was not really quick service after waiting in a line of 20 people, the soups and salads were often work the wait.

The company that has seen the biggest change and all for the better was Domino’s. I had some nasty remarks for folks who served this pizza to their children five years ago, but it was a completely different story today. Talk about reinvention. I no longer had to beg my colleagues at the office to share a pizza with me; now there was a fight over which was the favorite, buffalo chicken or vegetarian. The hand-tossed crust lived up to the hype and that was no easy task in light of the online chatter we heard.

Bravo to those that stayed true and those that did a lot more than tweak!