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A Healthy Franchise

Tired of finding nothing but burgers and fries or chicken fingers for your kids to eat on the road? Gary Hirshberg is betting that enough parents want to find healthy food for their kids and themselves to make a go of O'Naturals, a small chain of fast-food restaurants in the Northeast, according to the Chicago Tribune.

As president of Stonyfield Farm yogurt company, Hirshberg is hoping to spark a revolution in the fast-food industry with his new concept. The menu (see below) offers everything from carrot ginger soup and organic smoked tofu to bison meatloaf sandwiches, and macaroni and cheese, much of it made with organic or natural ingredients.

O'Naturals opened its fourth store in April in a former bakery at the edge of the trendy Davis Square neighborhood in Somerville, a Boston suburb, and plans are under way to expand the chain across the nation through franchises.

"We call it `fast food with a mission,'" Hirshberg told the Tribune. He envisions his restaurants shaking up the restaurant business in much the same way that Whole Foods Market shook up the grocery trade.

At a time when McDonald's is championing salads and Burger King is offering a veggie burger, Hirshberg and a handful of other entrepreneurs are taking things a step further, emphasizing how the food is produced as much as how it tastes.

One of the most successful examples is the Chipotle chain, which has 450 restaurants nationwide and is partly owned by McDonald's. Several years ago it began offering tacos and burritos with Niman Ranch pork, which means the pigs are raised outdoors and do not eat feed containing hormones or antibiotics. Pork sales at the restaurant jumped sixfold, and Chipotle recently started offering antibiotic-free chicken at many of its restaurants.

"We really think we can change the supply chain for the better," he said, noting that Chipotle is slowly adding organic ingredients if supplies are available and not too costly.

"We don't want to serve an $18 burrito," Ells said, adding, "You can't flip a switch and have it all free-ranging and organic overnight."

Not everyone is convinced that healthy fast food will succeed any better than it has in the past. "If I had a nickel for every time somebody told me times are different, I'd be a millionaire," said Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, which tracks what people eat.

Balzer said O'Naturals may well find a sizable niche like Whole Foods, which now has 170 stores and 59 in the works. But if Hirshberg hopes to play at the level of McDonald's, with more than 30,000 locations, his restaurant will have to compete with other mega-chains on taste, convenience and price, Balzer said.

"The major shift in the supermarket industry was not Whole Foods," he said. "It was Wal-Mart. How did they do it? By making it healthier? By making it easier? They own cheap."

But Hirshberg said the success of Stonyfield Farm, now America's largest organic yogurt business, shows that Americans are willing to pay more for higher-quality food. He likens the costs at O'Naturals, where sandwiches cost $6 to $7.50, to the Panera Bread chain.

"Some of our fastest-growing items are a dollar or more than our competition," Hirshberg said, referring to Stonyfield. Noting the success of Cosi and Panera, he said there are "big, big changes happening in this country as people realize that you get what you pay for."

The inspiration for O'Naturals was a Hirshberg family vacation in northern California in 1999, when family members became "frustrated hostages to junk food." He later had an epiphany when he took a carload of kids to the deli counter at Whole Foods, and they happily dined on organic pizza and other healthy fare.

Hirshberg enlisted an old friend to run O'Naturals day-to-day, a former executive from L.L. Bean named Mac McCabe. They opened the first O'Naturals in Portland, Maine, in 2001 and now envision not only more freestanding stores, but also O'Naturals counters in airports and supermarkets.

Noting the checkered history of health-food joints, Hirshberg said he and McCabe were careful to focus first on taste. O'Naturals uses organic ingredients whenever possible and food that is less processed than the fare found at traditional fast-food restaurants.

"We don't really talk about healthy anywhere in our restaurant," Hirshberg said. "That's very intentional. Not because it isn't. We want them to enjoy the food for the food, and then to feel that health is a benny."

Sample Items From the O'Naturals Menu

Flatbread Sandwiches
Chicken & Roots -- free-roaming chicken breast meat with pesto, Brie, root veggies
Alaskan -- chilled wild Alaskan salmon prepared in pan-Asian marinade with root veggies and Brie
Wild West -- wild prairie-raised bison meatloaf, roasted red peppers, cheddar and meatloaf

Tossed Salads
Spicy Peanut -- organic mixed greens, scallions, carrots, alfalfa sprouts, cucumbers, mushrooms, cilantro with spicy peanut dressing
Balsamic Blue -- organic mixed greens, crumbled blue cheese, raisins, walnuts, flatbread croutons with balsamic vinaigrette

Carrot Ginger
Veggie Lentil
Maryland Crab
Green Pea Herbs & Lemon
Butternut Squash Apple

Kids' World
Mac 'n Cheese
Mini Turkey Sandwich
Shells and Red Sauce
Grilled Cheese Flatbread
Choose a Side -- carrot sticks and ranch dip or half-slice of flatbread

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