Will Farm-To-Table Fast Food Be The Next Big Thing?

The problems of the fast food industry were known before Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary, Super Size Me. But by turning the camera on himself as he consumed fast food for every meal for 30-days straight, Spurlock exposed the shocking extent to which fast food is physically, mentally, and even emotionally damaging.

The film was an international success and became a pivotal moment in the conversation around the fast food industry, and its role and responsibilities toward human, animal, and planetary health. In the years following, countless books, articles, documentaries, and films about the problems of the fast food system have changed the public’s opinion of fast food behemoths, which
have seen a decline in sales.

Twelve years later, Spurlock is still at it. This time, he is launching his own
fast food restaurant called Holy Chicken, in Columbus, Ohio, to prove that fast food companies can be agents of change, not only for customers, but also for farmers and workers. I caught up with Spurlock on opening day to find out more about how Holy Chicken came to be, what he sees as the largest obstacles to change are, and what he hopes his concept will prove.
Photo: Courtesy of Holy Chicken.
Did the experience of doing Super Size Me inspire your decision to create Holy Chicken?
Completely. That movie definitely had an influence on creating Holy Chicken. Super Size Me had a dramatic effect on myself, the people who watched it, and the fast food industry. But what I continue to see after that movie is how many people continue to eat the [same] food that they did before — because fast food companies say they're making better options, but in reality, they're not. They are just manipulating their customers. The purpose of Holy Chicken is to prove that we can do something more transparent and authentic. All the chicken we serve is free-range, antibiotic-free, humanely raised, and is certified by the U.S.D.A. The sandwiches are "deep crisped" — we never say the F-word at Holy Chicken — but we're open and honest about all these things too.
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What is one message you’d like to send to millennials with regard to their food choices?
Ultimately, you need to be aware and understand where your food comes from — how it was sourced and how it was prepared. We have so much information that we don’t utilize. I think millennials are becoming a lot smarter about this than a lot of people. I am hoping they will use the information they have to inspire change across the entire food system.
Photo: Courtesy of Holy Chicken.
What was something that really surprised you while creating Holy Chicken?
It was really surprising to see how difficult it was to find independent chicken farmers. The dominance of companies like Purdue and Tyson is truly astounding. There is virtually no choice in the food system. As I mentioned, less than 1% of chicken farms in the U.S. are independent from companies like that. Holy Chicken aims to change the status quo and prove that another business model is possible and viable.

A lot of fast food companies have been making strides to, for example, serve only cage-free eggs, or stop serving chicken that was raised with antibiotics. Do you see these as marketing tools or something else?
Most of the time, it is more than marketing it is greenwashing and spin. For example, “cage free” doesn’t mean anything because it doesn’t apply to boiler chickens. Same with labels that say “raised without hormones” ­— under U.S. law, farmers aren’t allowed to use hormones on their chickens, so they’re advertising something that they aren’t allowed to do in the first place. Holy Chicken is meant to help educate the public on all of these issues, to pull back the veil on all these terms, and to talk about and show that there are alternatives.

Now that you have gone through the process of creating your own fast food restaurant, what do you think are some easy ways fast food behemoths could make improvements toward encouraging healthier, more sustainable farming practices?
I am not going to try and tell fast food companies how to run their businesses. The most important thing for me with Holy Chicken is to build a company that is transparent and authentic, that proves things can be done differently, that will help independent farmers, and to educate consumers on the issues facing our food system. Right now, we have the one location in Ohio. The next step is to prove that this business model and our business practices can scale.
Photo: Courtesy of Holy Chicken.
What about your labor force? How are you compensating workers? Do they have benefits?
Yes, absolutely. We are currently paying our labor force $15 an hour, which is double the minimum wage in Ohio. Furthermore, a lot of our labor force come from working in the fast food industry and we encourage them to talk to the customers about their experiences: what they were paid, lack of benefits, lack of paid leave, cuts in their hours, etc. I want Holy Chicken to be a place where there is an honest conversation between our labor force — whether than be a farmer or a cashier — and our customers. Having a running dialogue is the best way to expose and identify the issues facing the food industry and start to bring about change.

Where should people look for trustworthy information on these issues?
I recommend looking at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The information you will find on CSPI is in your interest, not entrenched corporate interests.
How long did it take you to create supply chains that were perfectly transparent?
Well, our stated goal from the beginning was to create a supply chain that was transparent and sustainable. Less than 1% of chicken farms in the U.S.A. are independent from large corporations, and it took us months to find the right farmer in the right location. The man we work with now is an independent chicken farmer in Alabama named John Buttram. For years, he ran a chicken farm that was vertically integrated and experienced firsthand all the problems with that business model – ­ranging from animal abuse issues to being forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on upgrades of his facilities. Telling John’s story is an integral part of what we are doing at Holy Chicken. We want it to be a place that customers can come to learn more about all of these issues: not only the monopoly of agribusinesses on our food supply, but also the effects on farmers and farming communities.
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