Anna Bernard was considering what to eat for lunch last Monday: vegetarian chili or roast beef and green beans?
Buying her weekly supply of lunches from Fresh Kitchen, Bernard scanned the labels for nutrition facts while she held a small stack of refrigerated prepared meals.
“I eat healthy, and I hate cooking, so they do it for me,” said Bernard, a 23-year-old emergency department worker at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.
Healthy fast food options are on the rise across the nation and in Baton Rouge. While chain restaurants tout salad and wrap options, local businesses like Fresh Kitchen have created menus designed to make healthy eating convenient.
While the country has become more health conscious, Americans still want quick access to food, said Ryan McNeil, co-founder of Fresh Kitchen.
“It’s a nonstop lifestyle, especially in the economic boom that we’re seeing,” McNeil, 35, said. “Baton Rouge is growing by leaps and bounds. I think that’s driving a lot of people’s desires for healthier lifestyles but also convenience. They want a convenient way to get some good food, but they don’t want to pay through the nose for it.”
Fresh Kitchen, which opened on Corporate Boulevard in August, creates “smart portions” of meals — about 14 ounces. Most of the meals have around 500 to 600 calories with a main course and two vegetable sides.
“It’s kind of how we should be eating,” McNeil said. “Some of the portions we eat when we splurge are a maximum amount of calories.”
More than 30 different meal combinations, made for vegan, gluten-free and paleo diets, fill a wall of refrigerated shelves in the storefront with a salad bar at the back. Each one has around 30 percent of a standard day’s sodium, one often-overlooked area. McNeil and his business partner, chef Daniel Dreher, cooked every recipe at least three times, testing its shelf life and taste.
“They’re far ahead of the game,” said Bert Guiberteau, a 60-year-old construction insurance manager who follows a plant-based diet and was trying Fresh Kitchen for the first time.
When they started Spotter’s Fast Fit Food last year, Doug Secrest and his partners decided the market was ready for healthier “quick service” food after seeing so many friends post about their fitter lifestyles on social media.
“If you go on Pinterest right now, dieting, healthy recipes, gym, exercises are the No. 1 pins on Pinterest,” said Secrest, 29. “It’s a conversation that’s happening across Twitter. People are checking in and posting selfies on Facebook when they go to the gym or when they make a healthy meal. I think that really shows you where we’re at from a society standpoint, accepting that healthy nutrition should be an everyday way of life.”
Spotter’s, which serves a breakfast menu with fruit and egg-white sandwiches, as well as lunch and dinner entrees based around lean meats and whole grains, has locations in Addis, Denham Springs and Hammond. It is set to expand to downtown Baton Rouge next month.
While Fresh Kitchen and Spotter’s are some of Baton Rouge’s newest health-conscious restaurant concepts, they aren’t the first.
Since 2004, Patrick Fellows has hawked healthier food in downtown Baton Rouge. He began with Rocket Fajitas, a no-lard take on the Tex-Mex favorite, in the Main Street Market in the state parking garage at 501 Main St. In 2007 he changed the concept to Fresh, with a menu consisting of salads and wraps made with ingredients delivered every morning.
“The idea was that we would get everything in that day, cook it, serve it and order again for the next day,” said Fellows, 43.
A fitness fanatic who loves competing in marathons and triathlons, Fellows was not sure south Louisiana was ready for a purely healthy fast food restaurant in 2007.
“Baton Rouge was not clamoring for healthy food,” he said. “People were like, ‘Are you sure you can sell healthy food down there?’”
So he focused on selling fresh food without hyping the health benefits.
“The fact that we were getting them healthy without touting healthy-all-the-time was kind of a win,” Fellows said. “I don’t want to say we tricked anybody, but it was one of those things.”
Last year he rebranded Fresh as Fresh Junkie and opened a second downtown location at Town Square on North Boulevard. Baton Rouge is finally ready for healthier food, Fellows said.
“It’s just all that more visible that it becomes more common place,” he said. “You see it on TV, you see it in the magazines, ... and people are just like, oh, maybe I should make a good choice.”
McNeil and Fellows don’t look at other healthy restaurants as competition. The more healthy options available, the better, McNeil said.
“There’s a lot of good, healthy food in Baton Rouge right now,” McNeil said.