Updated: May 26, 2015
Roy Choi is seeing things. We’re standing in the Tenderloin, the San Francisco neighborhood that’s notorious for being an open-air market for illegal drugs, staring at a boarded-up gray building at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets. Across the street, city-subsidized housing sits atop a bar. The intersection is known as a crack corner, but Choi sees something else. “It’s a beautiful building. The place has its own energy already,” he says. “Imagine that [area] all open, packed with people coming in from every angle.”
It’s hard to imagine. But Choi has a track record of making the hard-to-imagine happen. He’s responsible for launching the food-truck craze in Los Angeles with his widely heralded Korean-barbecue tacos. According to research firm IBISWorld, in the past five years, food-truck sales nationwide grew at an annual rate of 9.3%, to $857 million, as the trend spread to cities from Los Angeles to Boston.
Now Choi is scheming to take on fast food, with chef Daniel Patterson, whose San Francisco restaurant Coi received two Michelin stars, as a partner. The duo want to remake the idea of ready-when-you-want-it staples like burgers by returning the emphasis to food–without forgetting the fast part. Given the growing demand for healthier, nutritious options, they want to prove that convenient food can still be a real meal, not just something that masquerades as protein, carbs and vegetables.
LocoL, the restaurant the pair will launch later this year with locations in both the Tenderloin and Los Angeles’ troubled Watts neighborhood, is part fast-food restaurant, part soup kitchen and part hangout. Its burgers will be 70% beef and 30% grain, and everything will be cooked on site, as opposed to being microwaved. There won’t be any soda, but the restaurant will accept food stamps and will offer an extensive dollar menu, including rice bowls that feature a beef sauce distilled from cow bones. “We’re not trying to eradicate all fast food,” says Choi. They just want to remind people that they can, and should, be eating better.
The time may be right for such a pivot. With industry behemoth McDonald’s reporting nine consecutive months of declines in sales, and with the growth of brands like Chipotle and Panera, which feature made-to-order food using more fresh and organic ingredients rather than synthetic ones, it’s clear that customers want healthier fare–at least as an option. McDonald’s is now phasing out antibiotic-treated chicken, and Chipotle has become the first restaurant to go GMO-free.
That demand for healthier choices is why the chefs expect their concept to attract the nearby tech crowd (Twitter and Spotify have offices blocks away) as well as tourists from the city’s popular Union Square during lunch and dinner. But the restaurant’s reason for being is to feed those living in the Tenderloin, including the homeless and people in subsidized housing. That’s why menu items will range from 99¢ to no more than $8. And Choi and Patterson plan to eventually keep the restaurant open 24 hours so local residents will always have a place to go for a hot meal.
Sometimes having status doesn’t hurt. While LocoL–the name is a mashup of loco and local–has a handful of private investors, it also raised $128,000 through an Indiegogo campaign. Once it became known that Choi and Patterson were launching the restaurant, suppliers, farmers and ranchers offered their services–even unorthodox ones. The idea for the beef sauce? That came from a rancher who offered Patterson the bones of cows after the tenderloin was removed. “Every chef knows that older meat is tougher but more flavorful,” says Patterson. Which makes it perfect for stewing as a sauce, if not for serving as a steak.
“This is a tough neighborhood, man,” says Choi. “If, after a tough night, you come in in the morning, sit down and eat that bowl with rice and eggplant and collard greens–I just hope we can help people nourish themselves, replenish themselves to then go back out on the street and continue to figure life out.”
This appears in the June 01, 2015 issue of TIME.