Is America, once ignominiously dubbed “Fast Food Nation” by journalist Eric Schlosser, changing its ways?
Since Schlosser’s 2001 book, “Fast Food Nation,” exposed some unhealthy practices behind traditional fast food, industry trends show that Americans are increasingly demanding healthier, fresher and more local food – and not just from fine dining restaurants, but also from quick-service places like Panera Bread or Chipotle. The trend is so pronounced that last week, a Washington Post article renamed the country “Fast Casual Nation,” arguing that counter-service chains with higher-quality food are changing the way Americans eat.
One of those restaurants – now taking New York City and Boston by storm – was co-founded by University of Virginia alumnus Andrew Jacobson, a 2005 graduate of the McIntire School of Commerce.
Jacobson’s restaurant, Dig Inn, currently has 17 locations across New York and Boston. Dig Inn’s claim to fame is its “Marketbowl”: one protein and two sides served over rice or quinoa. Protein options range from meatballs made with beef and chicken from local farms to grilled organic tofu. Side options heavily emphasize vegetables and often change with the seasons. Summer menu offerings include summer squash with kale-quinoa pesto, grilled summer peaches and cauliflower tabbouleh. Most dishes are made from scratch just before being served.
“People expect more from fast-casual restaurants now. They want the speed and convenience, but they also want higher-quality food,” Jacobson said. “Eating well has become less about counting calories and more about what is in the food and where it is sourced from. And it has to taste great, because the idea that healthy eating is a sacrifice has really changed over the last decade.”
All of Dig Inn’s ingredients are sourced directly from farmers, who often work within 300 miles of the restaurant, or from Dig Inn’s leased farmland in Chester, N.Y. Jacobson acknowledged that bypassing food distributors to work directly with farmers is more complicated and riskier. However, he said building those relationships is rewarding and results in better food and an improved supply chain.
“We have spent a lot of time building our own supply chain and really focusing on creating relationships with our farmers,” he said. “We also believe in teaching all of our employees about the art of cooking. They learn skills, from knife skills to preparation methods, that they can use in the restaurant and at home with their families.”
If lines are any indication, Jacobson’s approach seems to have hit a sweet spot. Dig Inn restaurants are typically packed at lunchtime, often with office workers looking for a quick, filling and healthy meal that won’t leave them feeling sluggish in the afternoon.
For Jacobson, those packed restaurants represent a dream come true. Even as a student in the Commerce School, he knew he wanted to enter the restaurant business.
“I was always critiquing the restaurants I went to – usually not out loud – but just thinking about how I would improve things,” he said.
For one entrepreneurship class, he even wrote a business plan for a fast-casual health food restaurant, foreshadowing his future career.
“I can’t say what we have today is exactly like that plan, but it was a great exercise,” he said. “The Commerce School gave me a great business framework, and also a really helpful crash course in teamwork.”
After graduation, Jacobson learned the restaurant business from the ground up as a line worker in restaurants like Panera Bread and Moe’s Southwestern Grill.
“I’ve always gravitated toward restaurants that are quick and functional, but can still support a healthy lifestyle,” he said.
In 2008, he moved to New York City to join Pump Energy Food, a health food company that originally focused on high-protein, low-fat meals for athletes. Three years later, Jacobson supported Dig Inn CEO and founder Adam Eskin in an effort to rebrand the company and adjust its offerings to appeal more to the general public.
“We realized that the definition of ‘health food’ was changing, and that we needed to change with it,” he said.
They founded Dig Inn – the end result of that transformation – in 2011 and have continued to expand ever since.
“Now, we are hoping to open more restaurants in several new markets,” Jacobson said. “We always want to keep working to serve better food, develop stronger relationships with our farmers and give our employees as many development opportunities as we can.”