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weinoo

What Makes A Burger Place Fast Food?

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If there's a seminal fast food burger, I guess it would have to be the McDonald's prototype, since that was one of the originals. But now, with a lot of burger joints opening at a rapid pace, I'm wondering what the consensus is on whether a place should be called a fast food joint or not?

For instance, here in New York City, we have plenty (too many) of the ubiquitous true fast food places; McDs, Wendy's, Burger King and the like abound.

But we also have places like Five Guys (apparently multiplying like, ummm, rodents), Shake Shack, Black Iron Burger Bar, Stand, City Burger, BLT Burger, Burger Heaven, ...the list goes on and on.

Now, as anyone who has waited on line for a burger at Shake Shack knows, it ain't fast. Yes, it's food, but speed has nothing to do with it.

So, is a fast food burger fast food because it's fast? Or because of the style of burger it is? And if it's because of the style of burger it is, what exactly is that style?


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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Fast Food is anything where one goes up to a counter, orders and waits for it to arrive as opposed to table service. Some FF is faster than others and some FF may be slower than some table service establishments like diners.

Some FF restaurants are designed for maximum throughput efficiency, while others more for a quality product.

FF comes in all sizes and shapes from McD's to the food cart on the street to a pizza slice to Chinese take-out to Five Guys. It is food for people on the go.

FF has developed a negative connotation in certain circles, often rightfully so, however, ff isn't necessarily bad and can, in fact, be quite excellent - see many cultures street carts and street food. It all depends on the approach and the final product. A place where economy, efficiency and throughput speed are the highest priorities is less likely to have a worthwhile product than one for which the product is the most important element. This is the difference between a place like McD and Shake Shack, Taylor's Automatic Refresher or even Five Guys.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

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Fast Food is anything where one goes up to a counter, orders and waits for it to arrive as opposed to table service. Some FF is faster than others and some FF may be slower than some table service establishments like diners.

By this definition, drive-through would not be fast food -- a bizarre omission that reveals the problem with taxonomies like this!

I think that FF is a cultural category defined not by this or that criterion but by the attitudes people have about it. Portland food trucks, 1950s cap-hop service joints, New England clam shacks, diners... all have been called fast food at one time or another but today wouldn't necessarily fit the definition.

I just read Josh Ozersky's Hamburger, which tells the story of the beef and the bun, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a clear definition of "fast food" in it. Did Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation even have one?


Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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It would definitely be difficult to put a set definition on. I've had food at table service restaurants that was both faster and less tasty than food I've had at some counter service places.


It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Fast food is mostly of the past. As restaurants that were fast food expanded their menus they have been less able to offer freshly prepared food fast. If one accepts the wheel of retailing there is opportunity, now, for an entrepreneur to bring back fast food.

Fast food is assembly line restaurant food prepared ahead of it being ordered but existing in high volume restaurants where the prepared food sells in ten minutes or less. Fast food is a limited menu of popular food items. Fast food is cheap food, but a good value.

Fast food means no table service. Customers gathers their meals.

Fast food just ain't what it used to be.


Holly Moore

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Fast food means no table service.  Customers gathers their meals.

What about those places where you order, are given a placard with a number on it, and they deliver to your table?


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Fast food means no table service.  Customers gathers their meals.

What about those places where you order, are given a placard with a number on it, and they deliver to your table?

I don't consider such places to be fast food. The food should be ready to be given to me when I order.


Holly Moore

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Yea... I think that "fast food" and "cheap eats" and "street food" and "junk food" and "low cuisine" have all been conflated with one another in much of the popular imagination, so that to many people they are all synonymous.

Burger King's "Whopper," for example, may be "fast food," "cheap eats," "junk food" and "low cuisine", whereas Shake Shack's "Double Shackburger" is perhaps better described only as "low cuisine."


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Fast food means no table service.  Customers gathers their meals.

What about those places where you order, are given a placard with a number on it, and they deliver to your table?

I don't consider such places to be fast food. The food should be ready to be given to me when I order.

But, by that definition, virtually no place is fast food...except for prepared sandwiches.


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Fast food means no table service.  Customers gathers their meals.

What about those places where you order, are given a placard with a number on it, and they deliver to your table?

I don't consider such places to be fast food. The food should be ready to be given to me when I order.

But, by that definition, virtually no place is fast food...except for prepared sandwiches.

Yes. But back in the 60's and 70's, McDonald's food was all cooked ahead but turned so fast that it was, in theory at least, always freshly cooked. A customer would order, then the counter person would pull the wrapped burgers out of the bin, pick up the bagged fries at the fry station, grab the drawn drink - all in a minute or less. That was fast food.


Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

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Fast Food is anything where one goes up to a counter, orders and waits for it to arrive as opposed to table service. Some FF is faster than others and some FF may be slower than some table service establishments like diners.

By this definition, drive-through would not be fast food -- a bizarre omission that reveals the problem with taxonomies like this!

I think that FF is a cultural category defined not by this or that criterion but by the attitudes people have about it. Portland food trucks, 1950s cap-hop service joints, New England clam shacks, diners... all have been called fast food at one time or another but today wouldn't necessarily fit the definition.

I just read Josh Ozersky's Hamburger, which tells the story of the beef and the bun, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a clear definition of "fast food" in it. Did Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation even have one?

Your drive-through point is one of semantics and nothing more. The intent and the result is the same even if the physical delivery point is different.

I would add that fast food is something either largely prepared ahead of time with final preparation, assembly and delivery to a waiting customer or something able to be cooked and finished quickly for a waiting customer.

It may be easier to define it by what it is not - food prepared to order for table-side service. By this definition, not all hamburgers would be considered "fast-food", which I think is legitimate. That said, I think Shake Shack still fits within fast food even if the service isn't all that fast.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Fast Food is anything where one goes up to a counter, orders and waits for it to arrive as opposed to table service. Some FF is faster than others and some FF may be slower than some table service establishments like diners.

By this definition, drive-through would not be fast food -- a bizarre omission that reveals the problem with taxonomies like this!

Your drive-through point is one of semantics and nothing more.

Dave Thomas would disagree. :wink:


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Fast Food is anything where one goes up to a counter, orders and waits for it to arrive as opposed to table service. Some FF is faster than others and some FF may be slower than some table service establishments like diners.

By this definition, drive-through would not be fast food -- a bizarre omission that reveals the problem with taxonomies like this!

Your drive-through point is one of semantics and nothing more.

Dave Thomas would disagree. :wink:

How so?


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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The drive-through is the cornerstone on which Wendy's is built. When all thought competing with McDonalds was impossible, Dave Thomas started Wendy's in 1971 and, by modernizing the drive-through window, had 500 restaurants in five years. Read more here.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I would add that fast food is something either largely prepared ahead of time with final preparation, assembly and delivery to a waiting customer or something able to be cooked and finished quickly for a waiting customer.

That's all restaurant food...largely prepared ahead of time with final assembly and delivery taking a very short amount of time.


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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I think of "fast food" as a category so large as to be unhelpful in the present day (it may have made more sense in the 1950s). To focus it a little, there are a couple of terms in use in the trade press that seem more workable to me.

One is the designation "quick-service restaurant," or QSR. These are restaurants where there is either no table service or minimal table service (e.g., someone brings you stuff but there's not a full-on table-service experience).

There's also the relatively new term "fast-casual," which applies to places that try to provide higher quality. I would place Shake Shack, Stand, et al. in that category.

It may also be useful to distinguish between national or large regional chains on the one hand, and single-establishment restaurants or mini chains on the other. In general, based on what I've seen over time, there is a drop in quality when the transition from small to large chain occurs. It doesn't have to be that way, but it usually works out that way. It will be interesting to watch Five Guys complete that transition.

Colloquially, in the restaurant context (as opposed to Cheetos), I think of "junk food" as the subcategory of "fast food" that tends to be the lowest quality, most unhealthful, most vilified.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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The drive-through is the cornerstone on which Wendy's is built. When all thought competing with McDonalds was impossible, Dave Thomas started Wendy's in 1971 and, by modernizing the drive-through window, had 500 restaurants in five years. Read more here.

Different solution to the same problem. The drive-thru is simply the walk-up counter in a different form. In some respects represents even more of a fast food mentality than walk-up.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I would add that fast food is something either largely prepared ahead of time with final preparation, assembly and delivery to a waiting customer or something able to be cooked and finished quickly for a waiting customer.

That's all restaurant food...largely prepared ahead of time with final assembly and delivery taking a very short amount of time.

Not really, Mitch. The difference is that most restaurant food is finished to order and served to a customer at a table by service personnel. FF may be made to order but served to a waiting customer without dedicated service personnel. The food may or may not be eaten at a table. Another important difference of ff is that it is not just made quickly, but eaten quickly. That may or may not be true of burgers, though most are made for rapid consumption. Those that require knife and fork probably don't qualify as ff.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I think of "fast food" as a category so large as to be unhelpful in the present day (it may have made more sense in the 1950s). To focus it a little, there are a couple of terms in use in the trade press that seem more workable to me.

One is the designation "quick-service restaurant," or QSR. These are restaurants where there is either no table service or minimal table service (e.g., someone brings you stuff but there's not a full-on table-service experience).

There's also the relatively new term "fast-casual," which applies to places that try to provide higher quality. I would place Shake Shack, Stand, et al. in that category.

It may also be useful to distinguish between national or large regional chains on the one hand, and single-establishment restaurants or mini chains on the other. In general, based on what I've seen over time, there is a drop in quality when the transition from small to large chain occurs. It doesn't have to be that way, but it usually works out that way. It will be interesting to watch Five Guys complete that transition.

Colloquially, in the restaurant context (as opposed to Cheetos), I think of "junk food" as the subcategory of "fast food" that tends to be the lowest quality, most unhealthful, most vilified.

No doubt there are numerous subdivisions of fast food that have their specific usefulness as terms, though I disagree that the term fast food is "unhelpful." It may not be useful from the point of view of a marketer, but it is still a useful philosophical descriptor and generalization tool.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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If we can, for a moment, eliminate variables such as how long it takes, sitting or standing, in a car or on a bench, delivered or not, etc. etc. etc...

then what makes a burger a fast food burger? Is it the size of the patty, how it's dressed, by what it is cooked, or perhaps something I'm missing?


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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If we can, for a moment, eliminate variables such as how long it takes, sitting or standing, in a car or on a bench, delivered or not, etc. etc. etc...

then what makes a burger a fast food burger?  Is it the size of the patty, how it's dressed, by what it is cooked, or perhaps something I'm missing?

I think it is all about attitude - attitude of the restaurant and the diner. Some burgers are designed to be served and eaten rapidly, while others are not. The size and construction of the burger are key elements. A burger difficult to pick up and eat is not likely to be a ff burger. A burger made with care, thought and time is not likely to be a ff burger.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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The term "Fast Fppd" was originally applied to the hundreds of primarily franchised walk up counter restaurant chains such as Burger King, McDonald's, KFC, JAX, et al that sprung up in the 60's and 70's. The concepts were similar - limited, inexpensive meals, prepared just before being ordered - and served at a walk-up counter. Howard Johnson's and the Big Boy variations served many similar items but were not considered fast food because of the waitress/waiter service, the broader menu, and food being cooked to order.

If we can, for a moment, eliminate variables such as how long it takes, sitting or standing, in a car or on a bench, delivered or not, etc. etc. etc...

then what makes a burger a fast food burger? Is it the size of the patty, how it's dressed, by what it is cooked, or perhaps something I'm missing?

A fast food burger can not be defined without considering its habitat. It has to come from a fast food restaurant. It is pre-prepared either in its entirety or as individual elements ready to assemble. It is packaged. It has perceived value compared to a "full-service" burger.

As chains have complicated their kitchen by adding hoards of new products, burger production has changed. Originally burgers were grilled in batches of 12 or 24 or they were run through a conveyor broiler. They were immediately placed on buns, garnished and wrapped. The finished burgers were held in a warm holding bin, usually with a ten minute shelf life. Today burgers are precooked and stored in warm, moisture controlled drawers, and assembled mostly to order.

This has made fast food slower and less fresh. A McDonald's of today can not produce a burger that approaches the quality of the 1970's McDonald's hamburger.


Holly Moore

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Interesting. On reflection, it strikes me that "fast food" really should be "fast food restaurant" because it describes the way the food is produced, sold and consumed more than it does the food itself.

You could have two hamburgers that were more or less identical, but one could be "fast food" and the other not.


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On reflection, it strikes me that "fast food" really should be "fast food restaurant" because it describes the way the food is produced, sold and consumed more than it does the food itself.

I agree that the term makes little sense without a food-service context.

The term "Fast Fppd" was originally applied to the hundreds of primarily franchised walk up counter restaurant chains such as Burger King, McDonald's, KFC, JAX, et al that sprung up in the 60's and 70's. 

According to this blogger, who seems to have done his homework, it dates to the 1950s:

The “fast food” term became popularized with the New York City-based publication Fountain & Fast Food Service in 1951, later titled Fountain & Fast Food and then simply Fast Food. The term “fast food” appears in newspapers from the mid-1950s, although a “fast food restaurant” such as White Castle, for example, has existed since the 1920s.
A McDonald's of today can not produce a burger that approaches the quality of the 1970's McDonald's hamburger.

Most of the major chains serve inferior food today to what they served when I was a kid. I'm not sure that reality bears on the definition of fast food, though.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think it is all about attitude - attitude of the restaurant and the diner. Some burgers are designed to be served and eaten rapidly, while others are not. The size and construction of the burger are key elements. A burger difficult to pick up and eat is not likely to be a ff burger. A burger made with care, thought and time is not likely to be a ff burger.

I can't really see that attitude has anything to do with it. It's not about how I relate to the food I'm served, or the attitude of the person serving it. It has to do with, as Holly said, whether or not the food is made to order and served to me at a table.

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