NEW YORK--The team behind 4food, a burger shop opening next month on Madison Avenue and East 40th Street in midtown Manhattan, might have put forth the most idealistic concept that the fast-food industry has yet seen. There will be custom online orders with more than 140 million possible combinations, employees armed with iPads, free Wi-Fi, and a socially minded "green" mission that aims to use local, high-quality ingredients and compost everything that's thrown away.
Having gone to a preview event hosted by Gawker Media gadget blog Gizmodo on Thursday night, and having spent about an hour on 4food's Web site the prior day to lovingly craft a customized salmon burger on a brioche roll with Brussels sprouts, gruyere cheese, and hummus, I can say that the food component of 4food really is surprisingly good.
The three-level space is impressive, with power outlets at every seat (your receipt comes with a Wi-Fi password) and a massive video screen that projects, among other things, recent tweets and public Foursquare check-ins to the venue. When 4food opens in the second week of September, there will be a half-dozen iPads for self-service orders, as well as iPad-equipped employees walking around to speed things up.
Then there is the marketing strategy. Rather than spend money on traditional marketing, 4food encourages customers to save their favorite burger combinations in the 4food system, give them catchy names, and use the likes of Twitter and Facebook (and even YouTube video ads) to convince their friends to buy them. Every time a custom burger is ordered, the creator receives 25 cents in 4food store credit. A burger normally costs between $5 and $10, depending on the ingredients, which is fairly tame by New York standards but still expensive enough so that regulars will probably appreciate the successful-marketer discount every once in awhile.
Of course, it's green. 4food openly professes a devotion to high-quality, locally sourced ingredients, and all packaging for food and drinks--which, by the way, are primarily fruit tea-based concoctions without a super-size cola in sight--is biodegradable. A massive compost machine in the restaurant's basement can handle 400 pounds of waste every 24 hours. All floors are made of concrete to mitigate heat, and a set of high-tech shades on the restaurant's exterior can move around to let in sunlight while keeping things cool.
The problem for 4food, which hopes to open 10 to 12 new restaurants in the New York area in the next few years, obviously isn't going to be environmental sustainability--but financial sustainability is less certain. Operating a large food establishment in midtown Manhattan means paying some rather exorbitant rents even for an establishment that isn't paying a premium on fresher ingredients and compostable supplies. Currently, 4food is venture-backed by investors who specialize in both the restaurant industry and tech innovation (both digital media and green ventures) and plans to raise another round as it prepares to expand.
A roadmap to profitability? "As soon as possible," the management team told CNET. We'll see about that one. In the meantime, yes, the salmon burgers are delicious.