Cheap Eats: Farmer’s Road Drive Thru

In the cover story of the current issue of The Atlantic, David H. Freedman lays out an argument to soothe the stomach of every Bloomberg-hating, Pollan-weary fancier of Big Macs and 3 Musketeers bars: “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.”

“Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease,” the article’s subtitle posits. “Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?”

Freedman’s answer is a hopeful yes. The gospel of local, organic, unprocessed whole foods may be fine for people who have enough money to buy them and time to cook them, but most Americans simply don’t. And for them, Freedman contends, the surest path to a healthful diet is likely to depend on food processing of a still higher order—using “ultra-high pressure, nanotechnology, vacuums, and edible coatings,” among other emerging techniques, to engineer food that tastes good but doesn’t turn you into one of those space cruise passengers from Wall-E.

I couldn’t help thinking about Freedman’s salvation-by-the-drive-thru thesis as I tucked into a hamburger at a curious new restaurant in Chadd’s Ford. It’s called Farmer’s Road Drive Thru, and man, would it drive Freedman half-crazy.

The restaurant’s name pretty much says it all. Courtney Rozsas, who also owns Lotus Farm to Table in Media, has opened a fast-food spot with a farmer’s-market heart. There’s a chalkboard listing local farms and purveyors, weathered wood paneling lined with pickle jars, and yes, a drive-thru that would make Ray Kroc proud.

The menu is quite at home on a drive-thru board. I tried a buffalo chicken wrap, a hot dog topped (somewhat bizarrely) with rice crackers, and a grass-fed burger draped with organic American cheese. Sweet potato chips are the standard side order.

What can I say about these items? Not a ton, I’m afraid. The wrap was more or less like any other Buffalo chicken wrap you’ve had. The burger wasn’t far off from one you’d get at Wendy’s; for lack of a blander word, I’d say it mostly tasted “gray.” The hot dog itself had a full-throated flavor, but the avocado on top had oxidized, the whole-wheat bun looked like it had been zapped with a shrink-ray, and the rice crackers were just plain weird.

Then again, it was every bit as satisfying and speedy as the drive-thru competition—which is no small feat, considering that environmentally friendly fast food has been talked about plenty, but pulled off rarely. That wrap was delivered inside of three minutes. So was the hot dog. The burger might have taken four. Pretty impressive.

And the prices were competitive as well. Everything I ordered fell between $4 and $7. I added a trip to the pickle bar for another $3—which has to be a money-loser if everyone else loads up pickled cukes, cauliflower, apples, onions, and olives the way I did.

So here’s a spot where you can eat healthfully, and feel good about your carbon footprint!

But don’t go yelling Yahtzee yet. Because it’s actually harder to figure out whether you’re eating sensibly here than at McDonald’s. For one thing, forget about nutritional information. Big chains are required by law to make that information available in their restaurants, but an independent outfit like Farmer’s Road is not. For another, the simple fact is that there’s some fuzzy logic in the post-Pollan catechism. The prime example at Farmer’s Road can be found in the drink lineup. Yes, the local sodas from New Hope Premium Fountain are free of high-fructose corn syrup. But they are positively crammed with “pure cane sugar”—which, as Mexico, with its sugar-sweetened Coke, can attest, will make you just as fat.

So the question of whether the drive-thru can end obesity remains unanswered by Farmer’s Road. Nevertheless, personal health is only part of the picture, and insofar as Farmer’s Road’s emphasis on local sourcing positively impacts environmental health (not to mention the local economy), it’s a laudable effort.

I’ll freely confess that I’m not a great judge of fast food. Lord knows that as a kid I scarfed it down like there was no tomorrow. But when tomorrow eventually rolled around, I wanted thicker and less-cooked hamburgers topped with something bolder than American cheese—organic or not. So it’s probably inevitable that Farmer’s Road didn’t exactly knock my socks off with its food. But when it comes to food for thought, it delivered a lot more than I expected. Which, when you come down to it, is a rare accomplishment for any sort of restaurant.

Farmer’s Road Drive Thru [Official]