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Roy Choi on Creating a Revolutionary Kind of Fast Food

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Photo: Travis Jensen

At this Summer's MAD food symposium, California chefs Daniel Patterson (Coi, SF) and Roy Choi (Kogi, LA) dropped the bombshell news that they are going into the fast food business together. Their concept is called Loco'l, and the plan is to serve wholesome foods cheaply. Patterson reached out to Choi about the project shortly after last Summer's MAD symposium. Now Patterson and Choi hope to open the first Loco'l location in San Francisco in Spring 2015, with plans for a Los Angeles location and then world domination to follow.

Eater caught up with Choi after he got back from MAD to find out more about how progress on Loco'l is going, what his partnership with Patterson looks like, and what diners can expect from a fast food restaurant from two big name chefs. Choi and Patterson are not "coming in with any gourmet agenda," says Choi. "We're not trying to be Fast Food Plus and that's exactly why the cornerstone of Loco'l is that we want to make a 99 cent burger." Read on for more about the vision for Loco'l:

Congratulations on making the announcement, that's pretty huge.
Thank you.

What was it like when you got the call from Daniel? What was your first reaction to his proposal?
I don't know, it felt pretty natural. I saw him at MAD last year and right before I went to MAD, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the work he was doing up at the kitchen with the Cooking Project.

It seemed kind of serendipitous, I guess. As far as me preparing my speech and then me being about what Daniel was doing. I knew who Daniel was, but I knew him through other friends, but we had never met yet. Then I saw him in Copenhagen and we talked and bumped into each other at last, but it's kind of like those meetings where you know you want to talk to each other but the situations don't really allow for it.

Then I gave my speech, he gave me a big hug after and we kind of went our separate ways, and then he called a couple months later and I don't know, it was the right time, the right moment. It was just, "Yeah, let's do this."

Can you describe the vision right now for Loco'l?

The vision is to create a fast food concept with the heart of a chef.

The vision is to create a fast food concept that's delicious, but do it with the heart of a chef, so it's a combination of a lot of different principles. One is as chefs, we're approaching it just like we would another restaurant. So that's design, function, systems, fee and costs, organizations, sourcing, product, farmers, ingredients, recipes, training, all that stuff. Then on the other side of it is being very aware of what fast food is and what it's become in America, and why it's so important, popular, and powerful. Not trying to throw all of those things away. I really believe in the crawl before you walk method of things.

So the fact is, we've destroyed our whole eating culture and we've destroyed a lot of who we are as humans in America by the way we're eating. We poisoned basically the last 2 generations. It's really hard to just jump out of that, you know what I mean? Basically just sedated and numbed our whole existence with all the sugar and chemicals ... It's really hard to step back and eat just a regular piece of fruit.

It would be ignorant and stupid of us to not acknowledge that and understand all that. The concept is just a small bridge. What I meant by toe to toe is let's use all of the things that fast food is using, but start to change each thing little by little, so price point, toys, the menu.

Because we can sit here and blast about fast food, but the fact is they're winning.

Making things addictive, but making them addictive for the right reasons. Finding the flavor is the biggest challenge that we're putting in front of ourselves as chefs, is to use all of our technique and all of our knowledge to create a flavor that is relative and connects with the people. Because we can sit here and blast all day long about fast food, but the fact is they're winning. It is what it is. People love a Big Mac, people love a Quarter Pounder, people love KFC and Churches and Popeye's. People love that. It doesn't help if we're going to just try to say, "Don't eat any of that stuff."

How do you get around that?
Our biggest concept is to not be any different than any of these other spots. To not come in with any gourmet agenda and just know from the inside out that we're doing the right thing. But we just want to be right next to any other fast food joint. This is not just inner cities, this is everywhere. We eat some of the worst food in our suburbs. I could take you to suburbs here in LA County that are affluent suburbs and there ain't nothing to eat except chain restaurants. If we take trips up the highway, if I take you up to Highway 5, there's nothing but fast food. It's really just putting it next to these places. So I would love it if Loco'l sat next to McDonalds, a Burger King, a KFC, a Taco Bell, a Del Taco. So anyone who doesn't know about who we are, will just see another fast food restaurant.

That's the concept, but then when you walk in, I believe that the way we're going to create it with the design using the idea of Danish furniture and Danish ergonomics in the design and just our graphics and our culture, and paying our people well, playing good music, using great lighting, getting away from fluorescents, using natural materials. The culture that we would set in any restaurant, the culture you would set in Coi or A-frame is a culture we will set in these places. So I hope that maybe you didn't even know what Loco'l was coming in, but when you come in, and it makes you feel good about yourself. That's the initial concept.

Where are you guys at with the menu?
We put the cart in front of the horse, and we kind of challenged ourselves. We don't have anything yet. We just told y'all that we're going to open this year. We haven't even got to work yet. Really, we know the menu could change at any moment, but we know we got to put burgers on there, so that's one. We're thinking about making it a cross-cultural menu, so we're exploring things like falafel, schwarma, noodle bowls, and rice bowls. Things that go across cultures and that we would just naturally want to eat in any environment. The menu is going to be just filled with flavor. We're going to have soft-serve ice cream but made the way we would do it as chefs with natural, beautiful fruit toppings and compotes. But really it's based around the burger.

We want to create a burger stand.

We want to just create a burger stand, a fast food chain. We're just trying to take it back to basics. A lot of these fast food chains weren't evil before. They started out as wholesome, wonderful burger stands. Somehow along the line as businesses grow, money and things start to change your decisions. Then before you know it, sometimes you don't know which way is up anymore. Our philosophy in this is to always know which way is up.

Chefs never seem to lose that sense of balance in many ways. Some chefs lose it for a moment with fame and things like that, but they never... Chefs are never put in a corner to where they would serve the stuff that these places are serving right now. That's what we're relying on; even if we do get huge and big, and we get to a point where it pushes us in a corner and all these investors and everything are telling us what to do, I have to believe that as chefs, we would never get to the point where we would be serving poison to people.

I have to believe that as chefs, we would never get to the point where we would be serving poison to people.

I don't necessarily blame [fast food companies], you know maybe there are some evil intentions here or there, but maybe they're lost, maybe they're in the weeds. That's how I look at it sometimes. Maybe McDonald's and Burger King and all these places, they're truly in the weeds and maybe they just need someone to take them out of the weeds a little bit.

We know that the cornerstone of the American fast food chain is the burger and the sandwich and the fried items. We're going to take a look at all of that and dissect it and then revisit it. So the first example of that is our burger. How do we take that burger and not make it a gourmet burger, make it a burger that feels, tastes, looks, smells, and sits in your hand just like a Quarter Pounder.

Our idea is using Chad [Robertson] over at Tartine to help us bake the bread. I mean this guy makes the best bread in America and we're like, don't make the best bread in America. Make a bun that is soft and squishy just like the fast food bun. Help us do that, but let's use right, you know let's do a long-fermented dough, let's incorporate rice in there somehow. So we have that, we're taking each element and breaking it apart and asking ourselves, How can we find the price point, but challenge the status quo? The burger — cutting it with grains and the tofu — is finding a way because we don't have the power to get our meat at the same prices that these chains do yet.

Right. What are some other strategies for keeping food costs low and quality high?
It doesn't have to be all meat. That was kind of what Daniel and I, that was our ah-ha moment with everything ... We can't use the same method, so we have to be creative about it. How are we going to get it 99 cents, and if we can't do it by buying straight meat, then you know what, let's use grains and tofu and cut things. Let's use rice, let's figure those things out. That's kind of some of the strategy that we're using.

I don't want to act like we're the saviors and we're re-inventing the wheel.

I don't want to act like we're the saviors and we're re-inventing the wheel. There are people out there doing great food in the fast food sector like Shake Shack. Chipotle has been doing their thing, In-N-Out. The main thing is even with a lot of those chains, their food is still not 99 cents and McDonald's is 99 cents. That's really the difference in Loco'l is. It's not trying to compete with Shake Shack and Chipotle or other kinds of semi-gourmet fast food chains.

Right, at MAD Daniel called it called it "Fast Food Plus."
Yeah, we're not trying to be Fast Food Plus and that's exactly why the cornerstone of Loco'l is that we want to make a 99 cent burger.

Daniel has the science and the methodology to help us dissect all that. I have the respect and the connection to the people. So I know what people want to eat because I'm out there doing it.

Can you tell me more about your working relationship with Daniel?
We're a duo, so it's one guy might do one thing, one guy might do another, but ultimately we're one being. We're trying to maximize everything we're good at without getting into the politics and ego.

I'm a part of a street food revolution, I'm out there on the streets, I'm cooking with people. I have a lot of bold flavors. I kind of know how to create food that has an identity, you know an iconic voice. He really trusts me to have a cultural finger on the nerve.

Daniel is extremely gifted and smart and well-versed in the sciences of cooking and the methodology of cooking. Even though I'm a chef too, it's like, I know he's better at that than I am. So let him bring that superpower into play. He knows that I'm better at explaining the concept to someone like you. So let me do all the interviews. We just try to up-play everything we're good at. But then at the same time, bring it together as one thing. I don't really like to think about, I don't ever get bogged down with the business stuff too much. I like to just believe. I'm kind of a hippy in that way. Daniel knows business and so he's looking at those things. We fill in each other's blind spots.

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Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi presenting at MAD 4. [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater]

And this will be a for-profit company?
It's a for-profit. But the profit is not just money. If you want a deep answer to that question, for-profit means, for-profit to us as humans. It's for-profit for the people who eat this food and feel good about themselves. It's for-profit for people to use it as a community resource center. It's for-profit to spark other movements. It's for-profit to make money so we can use that money to invest in other operations. When you say for-profit, that's a relative term because we trying also to reduce our profits to make the food affordable.

We want the place to have community workshops to be open before hours, after hours, for you to be able to have free wifi so you can use it as an office if you need to.

It's a business, you know why because a lot of times what happens if it's a non-profit is you get stuck in the situation of raising money. Much love to all my non-profits out there, you know I'm involved with a lot of them and I love them to death but you know that's not our discipline. That's not our forte as chefs. I don't want to operate Loco'l waiting for people to give us money. I want to operate this as a business just like a restaurant so that we are thinking about things that we could do instead of waiting for the money to do it.

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[Screengrab: Official Website]

And you also have a board of directors?
Right now only René [Redzepi] is on it. Right now the board is René, me, and Daniel. We'd love to get [chefs] involved. We'd love to get scientists up there and we'd love to get community leaders and authors and artists and thinkers and designers ... The board will help us evolve and stay in tune with our mission.

How is the opening planning going?
We were gonna start big, we were gonna try to [open with] a bunch of locations at the beginning, but we realized, you know what, let's do it the way we know how to do it right, which is as a chef. [It's to] build one location at a time and do it right. So that's why we're going SF, LA and then out from there.

What stage of development are you guys at right now with the San Francisco and LA locations? Spring 2015 is not that far away.

We don't have anything ready yet.

Again I think we put the cart in front of the horse a little bit to keep us motivated. It's amazing what us as chefs can get done when we're under pressure. We don't have anything ready yet. But we put that message out there in the universe so that we could continue to push ourselves to get it done. Because this is a project that if we didn't do that, it could take a couple years.

Right now since it's out there, we've been on the phone and emails talking to people, real estate agents, community leaders, investors. Daniel's right behind, I know what he's doing, he's talking to a bunch of people in San Francisco. I'm talking to you right now. We're at work.

Our goal is to get it by Spring of '15. If it's Summer or early Fall '15, then it is what it is, but we're going for Spring of '15.

This interview has been condensed.

· Roy Choi & Daniel Patterson to Open Fast Food Concept [-E-]
· All Roy Choi Coverage on Eater [-E-]


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