This article originally appeared the October 2000 issue of QSR magazine. All rights reserved.
A new quick-service chain in Chicago is out to prove the pairing of healthy and fast can work.

Rosemary Deahl founded HeartWise Express in 1996 to serve both organic and wholly vegetarian foods. The idea: One?s food choice affects the environment and world. But Deahl jettisoned that idea?along with the political statement?and added fowl to the menu to broaden the appeal. Today about 40 percent of the menu is typically vegetarian.

?People can easily go somewhere else and get a great hamburger,? Deahl says. ?I?ve served our sloppy joe in testing, and nobody knows it?s a soy-based product.? Why did she shy away from using the word vegetarian in marketing HeartWise Express? ?I don?t know,? says Deahl. ?Maybe there?s something about that word that scares people.?

Deahl has borrowed from successes of other quick-serve chains?notably in having multiple cash registers for prompt ordering?and added her own twist with the menu items. ?People are tired of the standard fast food-fare,? she claims, ?especially businesspeople. They want something different. They can eat here five days a week and find a broad range.?

As CEO of Big Deal Productions, a film production company, she?s had opportunity to sample foods at catered functions and restaurants in many locales. Athough this concept is her own, Deahl leaves the cooking to the corporate chef. ?I don?t cook,? she says candidly. ?I do know good food when I see it and taste it. I probably eat out every meal of the day.?

Why it bears watching

There has been continued consumer interest in healthy eating, at home or in restaurants. HeartWise Express is capable of giving consumers what they say they want?yet how often do consumers follow through? ?My sense of it today,? says consultant Callahan, ?is that people eating fast food are not too focused on how healthy the food is. If you listen to focus groups, they?re lying.? Callahan contends the trick will be to site HeartWise Express where people put their money where their mouths are. ?Siting is a challenge for any chain,? he says, ?but they are going to need to be especially careful.?

The focus at HeartWise Express is on fresh, natural ingredients. Standards, including sandwiches, salads, burgers, and wraps, are served alongside unique items such as roasted plantains?a twist on the fried plantains commonly found in Cuban and South American cuisines. The plantains are seasoned, then roasted and served with honey mustard sauce. ?I can?t tell you how much the menu has evolved,? she says. ?We now have bowls with brown and white rice. What gives us the freedom to experiment is that we are not a huge conglomerate.? Customers can easily find nutritional information on menus and tabletop charts.

Whether or not the concept has legs might well depend on how well the developers select locations, says T.J. Callahan, senior consultant with consulting firm Technomic, Inc. ?The menu prices are competitive for a downtown city location,? he says, ?but I can?t imagine this as a Joe Six-Pack concept.? He see HeartWise in affluent, residential communities with highly educated populations and dense office and high-end residential areas around?or near colleges and universities, where he says demand for vegetarian and vegan offerings is growing by leaps and bounds.

HeartWise Express serves breakfast and lunch, catering to business traffic with an average of one thousand customers daily. ?It was busy as heck at 1:30 p.m.,? Callahan said of a recent visit he made. ?You would never mistake it for McDonald?s. It?s a nice operation.? An estimated 35 percent of the lunchtime customers return two or three times each week. Average check is between $6 and $7.

?We?ve grossed $1 million this year,? Deahl says. ?People are telling us we?re doing something right.? q

Will healthy work?: For HeartWise Express, success might come down to location selection.

By Linda Dailey Paulson

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