Special Report | November 2014 | By Sam Oches

Roy Choi’s Big Feat

The godfather of the food-truck movement wants to change fast food forever with his health-minded concept, Loco’l.
image used with permission.

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The phone number is emailed to me, and I’m surprised to see it’s only 10 digits. No dial-in information, no confirmation code, no announce yourself after the beep. Just a plain and simple phone number, area code Los Angeles.

I’m surprised because this phone number belongs to Roy Choi, celebrity chef, godfather of the food-truck movement, host of the new CNN show “Street Food with Roy Choi.” Foodservice pros of his stature often come with handlers, with spokespeople, with carefully timed 15-minute windows. But Choi is accessible through these 10 numbers and just two rings, and we talk for nearly 45 minutes about Loco’l, his new quick-service project with San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson that the pair announced at the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, in August.

Choi speaks candidly about the restaurant concept, peppering his comments with words that would require the whole set of symbols from the number keys of a keyboard. He doesn’t talk in sound bytes or from a script. He thinks out loud, sometimes drifting off in conversation like he’s dreaming up ideas for the project on the spot. These are important things to note because to do what Choi wants to do, he’ll have to dream big. He’ll have to keep free of a script, have to stay open and honest with himself, with Patterson, with the American public.

Because what Choi wants to do with Loco’l is no small feat: He wants to change fast food forever.

“The goals are to bring delicious, nutritious food at affordable prices,” Choi says. “That’s our mission statement, really, to never lose sight of that, to never lose our equilibrium as to which way is up and which way is down, never let money dictate what it is we’re going to do, because that’s not how we live as chefs in our restaurants.”

“For many years, chefs didn’t have a voice. We were stuck in the back. And now that we have a voice, this is what we’re doing with it.”

Sounds simple enough, but Choi and Patterson aren’t envisioning this on a small scale. This is no five-unit, Hollywood Hills trendsetter they’ve dreamed up. They want Loco’l to become a household name, to sit in the same strips across the country as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell. They want to offer burgers, fries, and other standard fast-food offerings, but make them with healthy, natural ingredients and sell them for competitive prices, somewhere in the $2–$3 range.

Right now, the concept is still in ideation phase. Patterson and Choi are looking for investors and real estate—the first Loco’l will open in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, while a unit in Oakland, California, won’t be far behind—and Choi says they’ll start piecing together the menu by the end of the year, as well as developing what Loco’l looks like, smells like, feels like. Whereas most of these details are already stitched up when a venture such as Loco’l is publicly announced, Choi says he and Patterson wanted to get the news out there early to challenge themselves and to surround themselves with the brightest minds in foodservice.

“It’s not much different than what we do as chefs every day,” Choi says. “Sometimes we write a menu, then we’ve got to go prep it. Sometimes we’ll go to the market or a farm and we’ll gather a bunch of stuff and then throw it on the table and be like, ‘OK, we’ve got to make a meal.’ That’s the way we’re looking at it now.”

What chefs do every day—that’s really the crux of what Choi and Patterson hope Loco’l can become. They want to apply the chef mentality, the chef process to the mass foodservice market. That’s the idea that originally brought them together; the two met in Copenhagen at the 2013 MAD Symposium—a sort of TED Talks–style event for the food community, organized by renowned Denmark chef René Redzepi—where Choi gave a speech that challenged chefs to feed not just people who could afford to come into their restaurants, but the people who lived in impoverished neighborhoods without access to healthy foods. Both chefs were already dedicated to the cause. Choi spent some of his childhood growing up in poor Los Angeles neighborhoods and is passionate about serving poor communities and teaching younger generations how to cook, which he does at the L.A. nonprofit A Place Called Home. Patterson, meanwhile, helped launch The Cooking Project in San Francisco, an initiative that teaches kids and young adults on the streets how to cook.

And both think that now is the time to leverage chefs’ power and influence to make significant change in the national foodservice industry.

“For many years, chefs didn’t have a voice. We were stuck in the back. And now that we have a voice, this is what we’re doing with it,” Choi says. “In a way, it’s very punk rock. It’s very DIY, looking at everything, scrutinizing everything, not believing what is being told to us, and breaking it apart and saying, ‘We don’t believe you. And we’re going to show you and break it apart and then give it back to you.’ That’s what Loco’l is. We’re trying to do that on every angle. We’re trying to do that with the food, with the supply chain, with our purveyors, the small farmers, with the people who are interested and involved with the food community already.”

Of course, Choi isn’t the first high-profile chef to establish a presence in the limited-service restaurant industry. Ever since Wolfgang Puck opened his first Wolfgang Puck Express in San Francisco’s Union Square Macy’s in 1991, the space has tempted celebrity and otherwise fine-dining chefs to try their hand, leading to a host of big names—Rick Bayless, Tom Colicchio, Michael Voltaggio, Bobby Flay, Danny Meyer—rolling out their own limited-service brands. This year has been an especially significant year for the chef trickle-down; along with Choi and Patterson, chefs Jose Andres and Carla Hall have each announced their intentions to open quick-service concepts.

Choi has high praise for what other chefs have accomplished in quick service, but says it hasn’t gone far enough toward changing the entire food system. He calls the movement so far the “first wave,” whereas Loco’l will belong to a second wave that takes a chef approach and applies it to the value-first, convenience-minded nature of fast food.

“It brought flavor, it brought a new look, I think, a new look and a new audience to fast food again,” Choi says of that first wave. “But one thing it hasn’t done, I don’t think, is it hasn’t given options to people who can’t afford anything beyond McDonald’s or Burger King or KFC. That’s not the fault of Rick [Bayless] or Danny [Meyer] or anyone like that, it’s just sometimes you need a first wave of things. They laid a certain foundation for that.”

Other chefs are already building on that foundation. Steve Ells, of course, did so with Chipotle, which sticks closely to its “Food with Integrity” mission by sourcing more natural and local ingredients than most chains. But even Chipotle, Choi says, is more of a premium option than what he envisions for Loco’l, more fast casual than fast food, a higher average ticket than what many in less-fortunate neighborhoods can afford.


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