What happens when the noblest intentions collide with the realities of operating an actual business? The California Sunday Magazine has one such tale, and it’s poignant. It’s entitled “Cooking Lessons: Disillusioned with fine dining, one of the world’s great chefs took on fast food. It has been harder than he ever imagined.” It’s about Daniel Patterson, who owns five elite restaurants in the Bay Area, who partners with Roy Choi, described as the “tattooed king of L.A. food trucks,” and their joint efforts to bring accessible, affordable, quality food to the masses in the form of a restaurant-cum-future-chain called Locol.
The mission was sincere, verging on oxymoronic:
They decided to compete with national chains and embrace classic fast-food trappings: cartoon characters aimed at children, dining rooms that felt like playgrounds. The food would incorporate beef, chicken, and pork but also sprouted whole grains and legumes, fresh and fermented vegetables and fruits, and no added sugars or artificial fats. There would be no french fries or sodas, but Locol would otherwise adapt familiar forms like burgers, tacos, chili con carne, and noodles—to meet customers where they were and deliver the same addictive sensory pleasures as fast food while never advertising healthfulness or cultural superiority.
The writing is vivid, particularly in its evocation of the differing personalities of Patterson and Choi. The latter is a junk-food aficionado who rhapsodizes about “a monster taco—crispy on the edges, just enough greasiness.’” Choi aspires to conceive an addictive menu and ruminates about being 16, “sitting on the curb and eating two cheeseburgers from McDonald’s and having an Oreo shake [and] how I love to tear the sauce packet, the sound of the paper.” Choi is all passion; his partner all intellect. Here’s Patterson describing his approach: “‘I thought, OK, burger: cost problem, health problem. Arrow to solution: Mix in something not meat. Scroll down list of possible ingredients, winnow to grains and tofu. Arrow to flavor problem. No flavor in those things. Arrow to umami. Scroll list of umami ingredients. I want MSG, but let’s go old-school: seaweed, garum, white soy, flavors of fermentation that lock together to create a propulsive umami under the meat flavor, so that it tastes like meat-plus. Then, What grain? And then, I’m going to fine-pulse the grain for texture. Got it, like it.’”
Then there are their attempts to launch the actual business. Their laudable goal is to employ and serve minority communities, starting with a notoriously poor section of Los Angeles. The writer captures the steep challenge: “It is one thing to build a brand and a burger, of course, and quite another to launch a viable business in Watts, a 2-square-mile community of 41,000 people with high unemployment, organized gangs at each of its four major housing projects, and exactly two sit-down dinner restaurants—a Subway and a Popeyes.” Suffice it to say, the business problems mushroom. Not least of them is the fact that the restaurant’s name unintentionally incorporates a signature slang term from the Crips gang, which some customers interpret to mean that non-Crips were not welcome. You can’t help but chuckle at such stumbles, but it’s ultimately a melancholy story.