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!

Q SERVICE R

There was a lot of good food out there and a fair amount of good value fuel that did not suit my taste. But no matter what I was hungry for, service is what made the difference. I visited many restaurants as I traveled around Chicago, Northern California, and Texas. I was obviously a “tourist” in many of the locations I visited—taking forever to review the menuboard, asking lots of questions about the items, and just plain looking out of place.

I encountered a fair amount of wrong orders based as much on my lack of knowing the right language as the listening skills of the crew, but some of the recoveries were nothing short of heroic. Even at places I tried more for this experiment than my personal taste would normally allow I found fast and friendly service. Inconsistency is the thing that moved some of my favorites down a notch. Yet the welcome experiences dazzled me and overshadowed the disappointments.

I had never been to a Jack in the Box and my California trip gave me the chance to see if the experience lived up to that unforgettable advertising. I ordered a steak snack wrap on my first visit. I brought it back to my hotel to enjoy and discovered it was fried fish and not steak. The next day I returned and asked for the steak wrap and mentioned that my order was wrong the day before. In a move meant for the training handbooks, 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! I returned the next day for a teriyaki bowl, and think I will again when I am out west.

On the other end of the spectrum, I was dining at one of my favorites an hour before closing and the staff started cleaning the dining room, turning chairs upside down until we were the only ones left in the dining area with a forest of table legs all around us. We ate quickly and left half an hour before closing—the staff smiled and bid us good afternoon, not even knowing they had chased us out.

“The thing I learned at Jason’s Deli was that I did not have to settle when it came to a deli sandwich.”

Chipotle, on the other hand, welcomed me with friendly smiles when I entered a downtown Chicago store one day two minutes after official closing time. I visited many Chipotle units and found the service consistently warm and welcoming. I learned not long ago that the manager of one unit invited the residents of a nearby assisted-living facility in for free lunch. My mom was among the guests (she loved the crispy carnitas tacos and the chips). That was a nice story I’ve shared dozens of times.

I normally visit a particular Einstein once a month, so I was a little familiar to the staff. Late one afternoon I brought in my husband for lunch, and he was astonished when the cashier called out “Hi, Sharon” when I walked in the door. How cool is that?

I became a regular at another unit with great food just two doors down. They never remembered even my face, certainly not my name. One day, the cook sneezed on my food as he prepared it, looked at me waiting, and served it up anyway. When I made a mistake about where to find my premium bottled soft drink, the cashier treated me like an idiot instead of a misunderstood customer who just didn’t get the system.

One of the most surprising service slights occurred when I asked for a cup for water after I ordered a full dinner meal for four at another chain. The cashier who looked like an owner/operator said no. He seemed so nice, I thought I misunderstood him and asked again. He simply smiled kindly, and said, “No ma’am.”

White Castle had a small plaque on the wall near the entrance with its simple, customer-relevant promise. I liked it because it was plain spoken and true to my experiences in the store.

I am one to lament the fact that technology can increase efficiency, yet disable good service. Not so with Domino’s. When we ordered pizza for the office, I learned that we could track the progress of our delivery person online, so we knew how our pizza was doing on its journey to us, and we even got the driver’s name. That was fun, and it made a normal wait seem like no time at all.

It’s Always about the Food

I discovered a new chain on the QSR 50 during my month-long experiment: Jason’s Deli. I was awestruck on my first visit. Real fresh food, lots of colors, and free soft serve ice cream! I wanted to say, “Wake me up, I must be dreaming!” I thought my selection of produce was going to be limited to lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and apples. I admit I dined here many times and ordered a lot of take out to supplement my other meals with fresh produce.

The other thing I learned from Jason’s was that I did not have to settle when it came to a deli sandwich. There was a real difference in the quality of deli meat—if you close your eyes and eat turkey, it should taste like turkey, and beef like beef, not some watery protein flavor that could be almost any deli meat. I felt pampered and enlightened.

Quiznos also offered up a quality sandwich, hot, fresh, and fast with steak that was really steak. I also like the recommendations I had from the employee when I asked about the food; it was clear he knew it, had eaten it, and liked it.

I also learned the difference that premium condiments can make. Not all mustard has to be bright yellow or mayonnaise based, and I was delighted to find lots more flavors to add to my sandwiches today than five years ago. Not that I have anything against yellow mustard, which is great on a Chicago hot dog, but there are none of those in the QSR 50.

For hot breakfast, the Egg McMuffin has become a time-honored favorite, although I do remove half of the muffin. Egg whites have become all the rage, and there were some terrific ones. Starbucks and Einstein stood out since they both executed those particularly well. Others were a bit too much of a stretch and did not measure up. When I went to Dunkin’ Donuts I really wanted a fresh, indulgent, I-am-worth-the-splurge doughnut and some good coffee; everything else was unnecessary to me.

Let’s talk entrée salads. When operations pretossed the salad, I found the huge amount of dressing universally overshadowed the quality ingredients in the salad. In a few places, when the chicken was served cold, there was a gelatinous layer of seasoning that could be peeled off, and that eliminated all of the appeal. By and large my favorite salads were the simple fresh side salads with good dressing I could apply myself.

Flatbread is another hot trend, and when it was done right, it was really delicious. But some operations insisted on calling a square, puffy perforated cold piece of white bread flatbread. A plain old bun would have been more honest.

Even though there were some terrific fresh breads within the QSR 50, there seemed to be way too many carbohydrates overall. No matter how good the bread was, I found myself taking off half the bread, scooping out the inside of a bun or pulling off half the wrap that had no filling. There were enough places that found the perfect balance, so I knew it could be done.

I was impressed with all of the new healthier offerings that allowed me to choose a more balanced selection from day to day. I enjoyed almost all of them and only a few forgot that no one wants to sacrifice taste for healthfulness. But I was just as impressed with the right portion sizes of uncompromised favorites that made them so enjoyable. No matter where I ate, I always wanted a little splurge that hit the mark. Mostly it was french fries, ice cream, and chocolate chip cookies. Even when they were not the best I ever had, they were still really good. For over-the-top indulgence, Cold Stone Creamery is in a class of its own. But I was pleasantly surprised at Carl’s Jr. when I had to go back to the counter and ask for a spoon for my shake because it was too thick to drink with a straw. Wow!

By the end of this great culinary adventure I had eaten at 29 of the top 50 chains in the QSR 50. I took a break and returned to my old favorite restaurants with table service and great wine and approached the Green City market like a true believer at the end of a pilgrimage. But this culinary adventure reminded me of some of my old favorites and helped me discover some new places that I happily returned to the very next week for something I craved.