BY LAM HO
For the fast-food junkies completely terrified of eating another hamburger by Super Size Me, KnowFat wants to offer a solution. The self-styled “Lifestyle Grill” synecdochizes the contradictory impulses at play in American eating culture: self-indulgent laziness and obsessive image-conscious calorie-counting. While 65% of Americans are overweight or obese, over 40 billion dollars a year are spent on dieting (distinguished from spending on nutritional health products). We want healthy food, but we want it packaged cheaply for our convenience, since we’re generally unwilling or unable to pay for it or prepare it ourselves. It is certainly an excellent alternative for the next-hopefully infrequent-occasion you consider eating Burger King, but does KnowFat provide that panacea?
Part of a chain emerging in Massachusetts, KnowFat just opened its fourth branch in Downtown Crossing after barely two years as a franchise company. Running late for the Handel & Haydn Society’s Dido and Aeneas at the Majestic Theatre on Saturday, I dropped by for a quick bite at the café-cum-nutrition store. Located directly across from the T-stop, it looked virtually identical to any local McDonald’s, decked out in bright colors and cheap plastic, but with the addition of a GNC-esque shop on the right-hand side with its requisite giant tubs of protein powders. Seated on the yellow tables were also some fast-food archetypes: the family with young children getting ketchup all over the place, the loud, skinny teenagers with their fortunate metabolisms chowing down on burgers, and delegates of the unfortunate 65%. Yet, I also immediately noticed the steroidal gym bunnies-the ones who actually buy those absurd Creatine barrels-as well as a senior couple eating what could be called a Sunday Roast with boiled broccoli and brown rice, and the “look-at-what-misogynistic-gay-designers-have-done” human-sticks intensely calculating carbs.
Fortunately, the food was catered for the latter group, or perhaps more accurately, to transform the former category into the latter. KnowFat offers a reasonably extensive menu, with comprehensive nutritional content details, which includes varieties of grill plates maxed out in protein, burgers, wraps, salads, soups, sides, and sandwiches. There are also a selection of desserts, snacks, and beverages. Cleverly, they offer yoghurt, sherbet, dairy-free smoothies, and “Hi-Protein Prolattas.” Half of the items on the menu were low-fat and about a fifth were vegetarian.
I ordered a veggie burrito, AirFries, a Banana Strawberry Swirl, pita chips, and a brownie. I enjoyed the moderately fresh, moderately-flavorful, moderately-portioned, moderately-interesting, and moderately-priced burrito which consisted of their vegetarian chili, tex-mex rice, fat-free sour cream, and cheese in a spinach tortilla. It was nice in taste, but it became very good due to its nutritional value (high protein and moderate fat), lack of the oiliness typical of say Taco Bell, and decent price-at $5.49, it is equal to or less than a sandwich at the Hark. The AirFries were not as satisfactory. With such a name, it was disappointing that they contained 19 grams in a much too small portion (about 15 fries for 1.99) and were just as greasy as McDonald’s fries. The pita chips (Stacy’s) and brownie were retail items marked up from Wholefood prices. But the smoothie was exceptional, albeit overpriced (4.79 and 5.79 for the protein prolattas). It had a pleasant, clean, fresh taste in which one could discern the individual fruit flavors; indicative of my appreciation, it reminded me of relaxing under the Spanish sun after a grueling tennis match up in the mountains last summer.
One notable distinction between KnowFat and other fast-food eateries is the customer service. While it operates in the usual process of placing your order with a teenage cashier from a huge menu on the wall above, watching more teenagers quickly put together pre-packaged parts on an assembly line, and then receiving it on a tray, there are excellent adjustments. The staff seemed genuinely friendly and helpful-cashiers are expected to ask for your first name, which is subsequently used for delivering your order or answering your questions. Importantly, the majority of the staff, who also work in the nutrition center, was knowledgeable about and very enthusiastic to explain the food and dietary information, as if they were warriors in a crusade against fat. Especially the hunky (non-teenage!) cashier who served me and waved goodbye as I left (saying my name as if it were a caress).
As evidenced by the little time dedicated to the actual food, KnowFat is primarily about a concept and only secondarily about the food. It molds a culinary niche by offering good tasting fare by fast-food chain standards and excellent customer service. KnowFat does serve up respectable moderation in a market dominated by excess, but it only provides an alternative to those for who fast-food is a lifestyle. But one can’t escape the harsh reality that it represents the very forces against which it markets a resolution. Its appeal is in and its success will be determined by its ability to delude Americans into believing that there’s a quick, convenient answer to the “United States of Fatness” problem. Just like the diet industry’s cunning self-perpetuation, the KnowFat concept enables and expands the American food-culture dilemma: the drive for quick, convenient, and cheap. Truly healthy food is not processed and packaged for speed and convenience, nor should great tasting cuisine be defined by grams of fat.
Info: KnowFat Lifestyle Grille, 530 Washington St, Downtown Boston
Rating: 2 Hunky Cashiers out of 4
Epicurean Doctrine of the Week: Fast food is the mortal enemy of the true epicurean; one has a moral duty to make time for fine food.