Do you think of fast food as an indulgence that’s bad for you? Well, think again if you stop by Amy’s Drive Thru, the first organic vegetarian fast food restaurant in the United States. Sure, delectable burgers are on the menu, but they are all plant-based. You’ll find milk shakes galore made from plant-based milks and other delectable ingredients, and healthier versions of fast-food classics like chili fries, mac and cheese, and burritos are served daily.
Amy’s Drive Thru was created by Rachel and Andy Berliner, the married duo who also founded Amy’s Kitchen in the 1980s. That business has been thriving for decades, and it’s now the leading maker of vegetarian and vegan frozen meals. It looks like Amy’s Drive Thru is set for a similar level of success. Andy Berliner answered some of our questions about this dynamic eatery and what’s next for this vegan-friendly company.
What inspired you to start your now-iconic vegetarian brand?
I’ve never been much of a cook, so when Rachel was pregnant with Amy, I went to our local natural grocery store to find some prepared, organic vegetarian meals. I couldn’t find anything. What I did find tasted horrible and wasn’t organic. We felt like there had to be other people like us who wanted convenient food without preservatives, chemicals, and additives. Our motivation from the start was to fulfill the need for convenient, organic, vegetarian food, that tasted great. We needed to create that because it didn’t exist.
Have you always been passionate about food?
Before we started Amy’s, I started and sold an herbal tea brand. My brother owned a Chicago pizzeria in Petaluma, and my dad produced chocolates and caramels for a department store in Chicago. So, food-making has always been a passion and a big part of my life.
Rachel grew up in Compton, California tending to an organic garden as a child. Rachel’s love for real, fresh, and organic food is ingrained in what we do at Amy’s.
What inspired you to start Amy’s Drive Thru? When did the first drive thru open?
Since we started Amy’s Kitchen, people have asked us to open a restaurant, a place where they could feel really good about bringing their families, where they could enjoy everything on the menu knowing that it’s all organic and vegetarian. We heard it over and over again. Six years ago, we were able to answer the call and open our first restaurant in Rohnert Park, CA. It’s been challenging but fun to create a whole new menu just for the Drive Thru using our years of experience in the organic food space. Our long-trusted relationships with farmers and growers made it possible for us to do it.
How did people react?
We were nervous the first day that no one would show up, but we ended up with a line of cars wrapped around the block. The response was overwhelmingly positive. It was clear from day one that we had something special and there was a real need for better-for-you fast food, more than we could have even predicted.
What can fans of your frozen meals expect to be different at the drive-thru? Do you serve dishes from the frozen meals at the restaurant?
We’re the first organic, vegetarian drive thru, serving the American classics like burgers, fries, and shakes in addition to farm-fresh salads, burritos, and pizza. The food is all unique to the Drive Thru, so it’s not the same Amy’s Kitchen meals that you’d find at the grocery store. But it’s the same great taste and quality that Amy’s is known for.
How did you choose which burger would be “The Amy”?
“The Amy” is a classic veggie burger patty made from veggies and grains, topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and Fred Sr’s Special Sauce. We spent a lot of time perfecting it. It took us over three years and about 1,000 rounds of testing. Our R&D is kitchen is next to our maintenance shop in Santa Rosa, so we tapped a group of self-proclaimed fast-food lovers, who worked right there, as our taste test group. Once they started asking when the next tasting would be, we knew we were onto something.
What are some of your favorite vegan dishes in the drive-thru?
Our burger and non-dairy chocolate shake are two of my favorites. We also have really delicious salads made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
Can all the dishes be customized to be vegan? Do you see Amy’s Drive Thru going completely vegan in the future?
Everything we serve at Amy’s Drive Thru can be made vegan or gluten free. It can create a challenge in the kitchen, but people appreciate that we cater to them, and we believe everyone should be able to enjoy this kind of food. That’s why we stay true to our mission.
When it comes to the future of Amy’s Kitchen and Amy’s Drive Thru, we listen to our consumers and customers. They really help shape how we evolve. More than 60 percent of Amy’s Kitchen meals and soups are now fully plant-based, and we’re continuing to make more plant-based alternatives to our best-selling products while working on new recipes that are also plant-based.
What’s your vegan or vegetarian story?
Rachel and I both became vegetarians because of our shared concern for animal rights in the 1960s and 1970s. We quickly realized that most of the flavors we enjoy come from plants, and there was nothing lost by avoiding meat. When we decided to start Amy’s, we felt it was important that our products share our values for food, and thus we always have been and always will be a vegetarian food company.
Are all the meals nutritionally balanced?
We cook using real, organic ingredients, a lot of veggies and grains. The combination of rice and beans in products like our burrito make whole proteins. Everything is vegetarian or plant based, naturally, so it’s nutritious food you can feel good about eating and serving to your family.
How do you go about planning the meals?
We’re unique in that product development is not based on market trends or steeped in consumer data. It usually all starts with an idea or something we’ve tasted that inspires us to recreate it for our consumers. Rachel serves as our official recipe taster and helps to refine the recipe once it’s in development. We do all of our taste testing around our kitchen table, the same table we tasted around in the beginning in the late 80’s. If a meal doesn’t taste good enough to serve to our friends around our dining table, we won’t go forward with it.
Beyond the dishes of Amy’s Drive Thru and Amy’s Kitchen, what are some tips for new vegans who are wondering how to eat well?
It’s an exciting time to be vegan. There are so many options now, and vegan doesn’t mean stripping away flavor and ingredients. I’d say keep it exciting. Try different foods and flavors, so you don’t get stuck in a rut. Some of my favorite vegan meals are from other parts of the world, like India and Thailand, where flavor and spice are abundant.
How do you see the future of veganism?
It’s been incredible to see how interest and excitement around veganism and plant-based eating has grown in the past year alone. People are eating for their health & wellness and for the health of our planet, and they see a vegan diet as the way to solve for both. We’ve been cooking vegan meals since the late 80s when it was on the fringe, but now plant-based is mainstream and only gaining steam. I think that will continue. When we look at the younger generations, they’re the ones fueling this excitement and the majority are making their own decisions to omit animal protein. Manufacturers and food purveyors are going to cater to these younger consumers and will expand and evolve their vegan and plant-based portfolios to meet growing demand. It’s exciting and necessary for the future of our planet.
Do you have a favorite restaurant where you like to go to eat?
Greens in San Francisco is one of my favorites. Rachel and I also eat a lot of our meals at Amy’s Drive Thru. We love the food and having the chance to meet and talk with our customers.
I know many vegans who are heartbroken that the vegan pot pie has been put on hold during the pandemic. Will it be coming back?
The short answer is yes. We know our consumers miss the vegan pot pie, and we’re very sorry to have had to pause production on it. The pandemic put a huge strain on our production, mainly because of the way we cook. A lot of our cooking is done by hand in real kitchens, which requires our team members to stand closely together. In order to protect our employees, we had to pause production on things that wouldn’t allow for social distancing. We’re now getting to a better place and catching up with heightened demand. I don’t have exact timing yet, but the products our consumers love, including the pot pie, are coming back to the market.
What’s next for Amy’s Kitchen and Amy’s Drive Thru?
Amy’s Drive Thru is growing quickly. Right now we have three new locations in the works, from Sacramento to LA, and plans to open 25-30 new locations up and down the West Coast within the next five years.
Amy’s Kitchen is building back to full capacity, and we’re getting closer by the day. We’re working hard to get all of our products to the shelf for our consumers who depend on us for them. At the same time, we’re coming up with new recipes to launch once we’re totally back to capacity, and we have some really delicious items in the works.
It’s an exciting time for both companies. People are eating for their health and the health of our planet. They want nutritious, convenient, organic, plant based and vegetarian food, and that’s what we do and have always done. We’re deeply committed to nourishing people and caring for our planet through our business. And as Amy’s continues to grow, so will the positive impact we make.
There are currently three locations of Amy’s Drive Thru. In addition to the original location in Rohnert Park, California, that is still going strong, you can find one in Corte Madera, California, and one in the Harvey Milk Terminal at the San Francisco Airport.