Daniel Patterson Makes Leap from Fine Dining to Fast Food. Will Regular Folk Bite?

chef daniel patterson
Chef Daniel Patterson. Photo: Alanna Hale

Daniel Patterson is working on a burger that could revolutionize fast food. He also wants to play a role in revitalizing communities across America that have little access to quality cheap eats. Can this MAD man give McDonald’s a run for its money? He thinks so.

The two-Michelin-starred chef is a homegrown success story who garners respect on the international culinary circuit for his haute cuisine with an emphasis on pristine local ingredients and a highly technical, modern aesthetic. He’s a buddy of the big boys of the gourmet global glitterati, including Danish chef René Redzepi of acclaimed restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, who founded the MAD Symposium, where this idea for a makeover of fast food debuted last summer. Think a TED Talk–style event with a food focus.

At home, Patterson is a local restaurant empire builder: There’s the starred Coi, his signature fine-dining place on Broadway in San Francisco. There’s also newcomer Alta CA, getting nice nods from critics for bistro fare in the still sketchy mid-Market district. Across the bridge in Oakland, where he lives, Patterson claims the high-end Haven and casual Plum Bar as his own.

He has a rep as a demanding, controlling perfectionist behind the stoves. What God of Food doesn’t? In person, he exudes the bookish, thoughtful, intense vibe of a scribe, which he is. He’s authored the cookbook Coi: Stories and Recipes and penned articles for the New York Times Magazine, perhaps most notably a pointed piece criticizing local chefs for mimicking a Chez Panisse approach to dining, which he argues stifles culinary creativity and technical skills in professional kitchens in the Bay Area.

Clearly, this university dropout, self-taught chef and sometimes musician marches to the beat of his own drum (keyboards, actually). For every critic who calls his food cerebral there’s another chiming in about his creativity. Think carrots roasted in coffee beans and matsutake mushrooms with potato-pine needle purée. Patterson has a penchant for essential oils and aromas and wild, foraged plants like miner’s lettuce and chickweed. He’s also been known to break out the tweezers while plating in the kitchen.

So some may see his current preoccupation with fast food as a departure. But Patterson has long had an interest in elevating peasant fare. In an essay he wrote for the Financial Times back in 2009 he argued that quality versus affordability is a false debate in food. He’s also committed to nourishing people who can’t fork out for fancy pants dinners. At The Cooking Project, the nonprofit he launched in the Tenderloin in 2013, he and the project’s co-founder, Sasha Bernstein, have worked closely with community organizations such as Larkin Street Youth Services to teach low-income youngsters how to cook.

Back in August, at the annual MAD bash, Patterson made a splash. Along with the street-savvy Los Angeles chef Roy Choi, of Kogi BBQ food truck fame, he announced plans to create a new kind of fast food. Photos from the event showed Patterson serving up sliders. The new chain concept, dubbed Loco’l, is designed to disrupt the current state of play in fast food land.

These two partners in culinary crime have pretty lofty goals: They want to knock Taco Bell and its ilk off their perch, those peddlers of what Choi calls “cheap, nasty, addictive food,” and shake up the status quo with cheap, tasty, nutritious food that consumers crave. In the process, the pair also want to create thriving community hubs in ’hoods that have long been overlooked.

It’s time. “It’s a myth that certain sectors of American society want to eat garbage,” Patterson told an audience of fellow chefs at MAD4. “It’s actually not true. No matter how people grew up, if you give people the choice they will choose delicious food.”

Quality burgers with special sauce for the masses

This is not some vanity project. Well, not in the sense that Patterson wants his name splattered all over these places. If he does his job right, he says, 98% of Loco’l’s customers will have no clue who’s behind the operation. Or, to quote Patterson, “they won’t give a shit about who owns it.”

Patterson is thinking big. And by big he means Loco’l locations across America in cities that currently house McDonald’s, Burger King and their corporate fast food brethren. Loco’l will offer familiar fast-food fare, such as chicken sandwiches and rice bowls, only they’ll be healthful, well-sourced versions in the $2–$6 range. The partners want to pay their workers well. By well they mean a living wage, starting at $13 an hour. (Last November, San Francisco voters approved a minimum wage hike to $12.25 in May 2015, then $13 in July 2016 before reaching $15 in July 2018.)

“A huge part of the traditional fast food model is the worker aspect; they’re paid a pittance. These businesses are part of the cycle of poverty all across the country,” says Patterson. “There’s a real opportunity to look at the fast food model from the foundation up. From the beginning you have to have an economic framework that assumes you’re going to pay people well.”

The chain’s first location is expected to open late spring/early summer in the heart of the Tenderloin, at Taylor and Turk Streets, perhaps the toughest corner in a neighborhood that’s been beyond gnarly for decades. The 3,200-square-foot space, a former bodega, will also house a multi-use commissary kitchen, which is expected to one day service several Loco’l locations.

High-end restaurant designer Scott Kester, who is based in New York, is tasked with tricking out the space. He counts Coi and Umami Burger in Los Angeles as clients. An L.A. spot is slated to follow, with a third location, perhaps Oakland, up next. In 2016, if all goes according to plan, 10 or so Loco’ls will roll out around the country.

In the mid-December 2014 announcement of their first location, the duo outlined the rapid progression of a project that was a mere notion a year ago.

“In January we talked on the phone and decided to open a new kind of fast food chain. We barely knew each other. In February we got together, ate hot pot and talked about how we could change the world. We had an idea for a restaurant. We had no name, no concept, no menu,” reads the joint statement. “In August we showed up at MAD with a name, a logo, a prototype of a burger and lots of big ideas. We still had no space, no business plan, no money. Now we have a business partner and a little money. And we have our first space. It’s 57 Taylor Street at Turk in San Francisco.”

Nowadays, top chefs like Patterson and Choi can lay claim to an international platform, local cred and financial pull. Why not marshal those resources to make significant social change and overhaul the food supply chain while they’re at it? Chefs have more to offer than putting a piece of crab on crostini at a charity event, Patterson told his colleagues at MAD4. Why not draw on their expertise and skill set to try to actually solve hunger?

Neither is a stranger to social justice. At MAD3 in 2013, Choi made an impassioned speech about L.A.’s hunger crisis: Around 65,000 children there live in poverty in places where convenience stores sell junk food he calls “corrosive chemical waste.” One of his main motivations for cooking street food, says the author of L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, was to bring wholesome, inexpensive food to people without privilege.

Like Patterson, Choi wants to do something concrete to address food security. As a step in that direction, he helped open 3 Worlds Café, a shop in South Central L.A. serving fresh fruit and smoothies in an area known for its booze outlets. That was just a start.

After Choi’s MAD talk, Patterson decided he’d found a kindred spirit. So he reached out to Choi about teaming up. “I told him I had this idea to do community-embedded fast food that gave back to the community instead of taking out of it,” Patterson explains one afternoon at Plum Bar, where barrel-aged craft cocktails are in high demand. “A place that is part of the community, a hub as opposed to a place that siphons money from the area and takes it away.”

Choi’s response: Let’s do it.

On the surface, Choi and Patterson seem a culinary odd couple. Choi’s food is not fancy. The Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park) graduate and former hotel chef is best known for combining Korean and Mexican flavors in comfort dishes. As for appearances: The lanky Patterson is an East Coast transplant, soft-spoken and prone to pausing between thoughts; he exudes an intellectual air. The Korean American Choi, in contrast, is all street-style, tatted-up and has a habit of making rapid-fire, expletive laden, even cryptic pronouncements. Patterson totes a book bag; Choi typically wears a baseball cap.

Dig a little deeper, though, and these two have similarities. For starters, they have the ambition—some might even say arrogance—to think they can change the world. In a profile about Choi in a recent California Sunday Magazine, he asks agents working on his brand if they could think of a way that he could reach people on “an MLK or Gandhi or Oprah level.” Grandiosity aside, it’s hard not to admire a guy who kicked a serious gambling addiction, lost everything and then built a thriving mobile food business out of a beat-up taco truck.

Patterson says they have much in common.

“Our value systems are very similar. Our approach to what we want to do is very similar. In a way our stories are very similar: We both basically did something that had never been done and that turned out to be very successful,” he says. “We made a market for something. In Roy’s case, on the lower end of the food chain in the street food world, and in my case, on the upper end, but it was essentially the same in a lot of respects. We did something new that didn’t necessarily seem like it was going to be a big success and it worked out.”

In terms of cooking, both chefs have a similar fluidity around mixing the techniques and ingredients of different cultures in their dishes. They want that in their new venture, too.

“We both want something that represents what California is now. We want everyone who goes into our restaurant, no matter what their background, to see themselves on the menu somewhere, whereas typical fast food is kind of stuck in 1957 white America,” says Patterson. “Our food is actually going to have acidity and herbs and a point of view.”

Patterson is quick to rattle off the skills that Choi offers the business, including culinary chops, a strong social media presence and media savvy. That’s not all.

“He brings a fundamental integrity in terms of the population we’re trying to bring to the restaurant. They don’t know who I am, but they know who he is,” says Patterson, who admires his fellow chef’s ability to feed thousands—and fast.

Branding is crucial and mostly Choi’s domain. Choi is also leading the design aspects for the chain. He’s thinking neutrals like black, gray and white and something of a pirate ship attitude. Expect music and art to play a role.

“The symbolism of restaurants—from the outside, the colors, the menu—these things tell you a lot about what to expect and what a place offers,” says Patterson. “But it also tells you something very fundamental: whether you belong there or not. Fast food, for all its flaws, is the only truly inclusive place of public eating in this country. Anyone can walk into a fast food restaurant and feel like they belong. That is the power of the institution we want to use.”

Plans call for an interior that resembles a public park, including concrete and wooden benches, with a flow and feeling that’s welcoming and inclusive, including an open kitchen so there’s no barrier between customer and cook.

Both Patterson and Choi are cagey on the specific details of their concept. Some of that’s because things are still in development. And some of that may simply be because they don’t want to give away too much in advance. Innovation around customer service efficiency is a focus. Although Patterson seems excited about this aspect, he won’t say more on the matter for now.

Oh, and as for the food: Made from scratch on site at the commissary kitchen using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. Take their burgers: They’re talking a patty with 70% ground beef and a 30% grain/tofu mixture, to mimic the taste and texture of familiar burgers at other fast food chains.

Local food producers welcome the opportunity to help. Tofu may come courtesy of Hodo Soy Beanery and Tartine Bakery’s Chad Robertson has his hands in crafting the soft, smooshy burger buns.

“Lots of fast-casual healthy food projects have been rolled out the last few years (with more going on line this year) but I don’t know of any others that are aimed squarely at the heart of big fast food,” says Robertson, who is working with his R&D team to come up with a fermented whole-grain koji bun for Loco’l. “It’s a huge distinction, which makes it much more interesting to me as a real possible catalyst for change in the way fast, affordable and healthy food could be made more available to more people.”

The menu, says Patterson, is the easy part, and he’s taking the lead on that front.

“It’s the last thing I’m worried about. We’re chefs; we know how to do that.” He’s on a mission to create wholesome food only with the kind of craveable flavor beloved by fast food consumers. That’s the fun part for a culinary creative like Patterson.

Making money: That’s important too. Patterson says the business needs to turn a profit quickly. The partners, including finance guy and former merchant banker Hanson Li, are pretty tight-lipped about the economic end of things as well. Suffice to say, there’s been no shortage of investors who have offered to pony up cash to kick off the project.

“Capital is coming from like-minded folks from all sectors and walks of life—media, technology, financial, philanthropy and foodies,” Li will say. The company he founded in 2014, Salt Partners Group, invests in food and beverage concepts, including Humphrey Slocombe, Saison and Bacon Bacon. But won’t this chain need to scale up to generate the kind of cash fast food behemoths enjoy?

“The first step is that we build a restaurant and commissary in San Francisco,” says Li. “The larger ‘number’ vision is to have thousands of these.” For comparison purposes, Li notes: “There are about 300 In-N-Outs, 3,000 Panda Expresses and 15,000 McDonald’s just in the U.S.”

On an individual store level, Li says they’ve hashed out a budget and know what targets they need to hit. “If we sell as much as a typical McDonald’s, we’ll be very successful.”

Still, even during the so-called ideation phase, Patterson hasn’t lost sight of the bottom line. “We need to just be ridiculously fucking busy from the moment we open our doors. We have to nail it from day one. We have to make money because everyone is just waiting for us not to,” he says.

To keep costs in line they’re exploring sourcing from ranchers and farmers when they have surplus and using cheaper cuts of meat.

“We’re looking at a variety of ways to keep the price down. A lot of that goes to good cooking,” says Patterson. “You don’t need expensive ingredients to cook well. We’re going to cook at the commissary and build a pantry so we offer depth of flavor at the same time we reduce costs.”

They’ve purposely formed as a limited liability company (LLC) rather than a corporation. The pair are wary of losing control of the business; the LLC offers some structural protections on that score.

“Once we’re up to 100 stores and the brand is strong we’re ripe to be taken over by a board of directors. I don’t want to be bought by Pepsi,” says Patterson. “We don’t ever want to sell this. It’s not a business we’re building to flip. We see this as an instrument for social change.”

Beyond the Bay

These two top chefs aren’t the first to go from fine dining to quick service. Wolfgang Puck did it back in the ’90s, and more recently well-known chefs such as Rick Bayless, Bobby Flay and Danny Meyer have launched their own fast-casual chains in other parts of the country. Closer to home, Josh Skenes of the three-Michelin-starred Saison is getting in on the act with the upcoming Chinese fast-casual joint Fat Noodle in the city’s Financial District. But fast-casual places, Patterson is quick to point out, are not the same thing culturally as a fast food chain. The price point, for one, is still prohibitive for many low-income people.

What about Chipotle? The-fast casual Mexican grill chain with 1,600 or so U.S. locations boasts organic beans and greens, antibiotic-free meat and local produce. It also teamed up with Oakland tofu maker Hodo Soy Beanery on one of its vegan dishes. It’s worked hard to distance itself from its past, when McDonald’s was an investor, and calls itself the sustainable choice of the quick service scene, dishing up favorites like burritos and tacos, and selling what it dubs “food with integrity” at a price point that Choi and Patterson hope to match.

But the pair also want to offer items in the 99 cent to $2 range and find creative ways to move food (like at the end of the day) at a cost even the working poor can afford. In their mind, Chipotle is still more of a premium option than what they envision for Loco’l.

“Much love to Chipotle, they are a leader,” says Choi. “But it’s a game of inches, as they say in sports. To have a burrito with a drink and tax costs the consumer at least $10. The choices one must make between a $10 meal or a $10 meal for the whole family are huge. $1 menus, full meals for under $6: This is the key to where fast food really lives.”

Loco’l also intends to set up in inner-city neighborhoods that chains bypass. As for fast-casual chains such as Panera, it’s not just price that makes them out of reach in Choi’s view, it’s also identity and messaging. “These type of in-between brands don’t speak to the urban youth and minority working class,” he adds.

Fast food has long carried a stigma in fine-dining circles. But that’s shifting too. Celebrity chef José Andrés is reportedly working on his own vegetable-centric fast food concept. In a Vanity Fair interview last year, Andrés echoed Choi’s sentiment about chefs having a responsibility to feed more than just the well-to-do.

“I’ve been saying for a while that more and more chefs, need to be [better at] influencing how to feed the many. We only feed the few,” he told the glossy. “I believe there’s an opportunity for chefs to have more of a say in how we’re going to feed the vast majority of this planet. You achieve that through fast-food restaurants. I guarantee you that in the next 10 to 20 years we are going to see more and more fast-food restaurants led by chefs.”

Patterson and Choi are down with that. They want to kick-start a chef-led food movement that plays havoc with the mainstream fast food machine. They plan to reach out to like-minded chefs in other regions to expand the concept. As for taking on the big fast food chains, Choi says: “We ain’t here to crush them. We’re here to help them and guide a new path so they can feed our communities better.”

On the same day that news surfaced about Loco’l’s first location, the California-based hamburger chain Carl’s Jr. began rollout of a burger made with grass-fed, free-range beef from Australia in all its 1,150 stores. It’s the first major fast food chain to offer such a patty, with its promise of meat without added hormones, steroids or antibiotics. No word on a makeover of their buns. And, it should be noted: The menu item, dubbed the All-Natural Burger, clocks in at 44 grams of fat and 760 calories, a reminder that “natural” is not synonymous with “healthy.”

Patterson flinches at the though of trying to bring about change in fast food from within the existing system.

“Why do you think working with them is going to change things? They’re the ones who created these problems in the first place,” he says. “First, they don’t want to. And second, they’re not chefs, they don’t know how to.”

Of course, nobody is naïve enough to think that one restaurant—regardless of how cheap, delicious and committed it is—can transform an entire low-income community that’s hungry for change. Residents of these areas need jobs, housing and social services to thrive. But restaurants can become hubs, places for employment, education and enjoyment and catalysts for turning a community around.

When Patterson approached Larkin Street Youth Services, for instance, he came with “a chef’s sense of urgency and a lot of great ideas but I believe he experienced a bit of nonprofit culture shock,” says Larkin Street’s food service coordinator Benjamin Nelsen. “We don’t move at the same pace as the back of the house at Coi.”

As for obstacles Patterson and company might face, Nelsen adds: “It’ll be challenging to get the word out to the community and get folks through the door. The neighborhood faces such adversity that it’s difficult for them to have and maintain regularity in their lives, like a safe place to sleep and eat.” The commissary kitchen adjacent to the flagship Loco’l in the Tenderloin will house The Cooking Project, which plans to expand its program beyond youth.

That’s welcome news in the neighborhood.

“The Tenderloin immigrant community has historically opened small restaurant businesses in the Tenderloin because making great food is their transferrable skill,” says Anh Nguyen, executive director, Tenderloin Economic Development Project. “Those opportunities are harder to come by with the tremendous real estate pressure, but meaningful jobs that pay higher than minimum wage can help lift them out of poverty.”

“Also, it’s a great opportunity for many of these restaurant owners operating in small kitchens, to increase their capacity by using Loco’l’s commissary kitchen to put out more food for delivery and catering. The neighborhood has over 90 restaurants, operating on slim margins, and having a resource like Loco’l can really bring visibility to the great affordable, authentic food that already exists. Businesses like Loco’l can help advocate for those immigrant business owners who are largely invisible and voiceless. We look forward to having more socially responsible partners help us improve the neighborhood by supporting small businesses and job creation.”

It’s a game-changer for the neighborhood, says Kevin Causey, president of the Saint Francis Foundation and head of the Tenderloin Health Improvement Partnership. Loco’l is coming to an A-location in what has been a traditionally blighted spot, he adds.

“Loco’l is the kind of small business we need in the neighborhood. It offers healthy, affordable food options for the residents of the Tenderloin without gentrification.”

Some neighborhood watchers sound a more cautionary note.

“Food can be an anchor, but generally it isn’t enough. The key thing—and one of the mistakes they’ve made in this city—is they’ve brought in restaurants, but not places to work,” said John William Templeton, president of Venturata Economic Development Corporation, in a San Francisco Chronicle story.  An economist and author, Templeton is also the co-founder of National Black Business Month. “A lot of folks come in and say ‘I’m going to save so-and-so community’ and don’t ask the community, ‘Would you like to be saved?’ or ‘How would you like to be saved?’ That’s usually a road to disaster.”

Templeton told the Chronicle that Harlem in New York City is a strong model for how to use food for economic development and education. Harlem is home to neighborhood dining institutions that have become community hubs, like the lauded soul-food restaurant Sylvia’s, and newcomers, like Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster. Both have been mindful of the community they serve.

While some might be overwhelmed at the scale of such an operation, Patterson isn’t daunted.

“All we’re doing is opening a restaurant. And we know how to do that. As we grow, we’ll have time to talk with our vendors, tell them we’re scaling up, and ask who can and wants to come with us.” He’s also a realist. “Are we going to be all organic? I think not, or at least, not in the beginning, but maybe over time. It’s more important to bring real food to these communities than to insist on some impossible standard and fail.”

For Patterson, as with many professional chefs and home cooks, food is a fundamental way of communicating caring, generosity and love.

“When someone talks about their grandmother’s cooking, what they’re really saying is ‘my family loved me.’ And if you look at what we’re feeding so many people in our country, what we’re saying is: ‘We don’t care about you,’” he says. “That trickles down into how people view the world and it’s incredibly damaging. We want to come in and say: ‘We care about you.’ That’s it.”

Almost. “We’re going to cook with our heart, do the absolute best we can and make the most delicious food at a price people can afford,” says Patterson. “That’s the entirety of the promise. But promises get broken all the time in these communities. The most important thing about this project is that we do what we say we’re going to do over and over so that that builds trust. If we build trust, then anything is possible.”

What’s the likelihood that this expansive addition to the affordable dining landscape will do well? It’s way too soon to call.

“To start action on ambitious ideas like this require vision well beyond contemplating success or failure,” says baking partner and pal Robertson. “It’s a long-haul endeavor that will continue to evolve.”

Oh, and if there was any doubt about the inspiration behind the name: There’s the play on local food and local community. There’s also loco, as in this is one hell of a crazy idea.

The thing about crazy ideas, though: If they work, people go on to call them brilliant.


This story was published in the Winter 2015 issue of Edible San Francisco Magazine. © 2015 Edible San Francisco.