Andy and Rachel Berliner started their line of vegetarian frozen dinners in 1987 after their daughter Amy was born and the time-crunched parents couldn’t find any healthy frozen meals that didn’t “taste like cardboard.” Now the founders of Amy’s Kitchen are attempting to start a sea change in another, historically unhealthy food market: fast food.
The result is Amy's Drive Thru in Rohnert Park (the company is headquartered in Petaluma and operates a processing plant in Santa Rosa,) which opened at the end of July. By most accounts, it’s been a success. Hundreds lined up for its opening, and the restaurant has already racked up more than 200 Yelp reviews in under two months. When I visited around 1 PM on a Saturday, the drive through was backed up, and virtually all of the parking spots were taken. We were elated when we saw two free spots next to each other, but alas, those were for electric vehicles only.
The restaurant is located in the heart of enemy territory: a main thoroughfare just off the freeway that’s bordered by a handful of fast food chains: In-N-Out a block to the right, Arby’s to the left, McDonald’s in a nearby Walmart, and a Taco Bell across the street. The sprawling Graton Casino looms in the background, visible from inside the restaurant, just a field away.
Amy's Drive Thru looks like a retrofitted barn, with high, beamed ceilings, a living roof and a water tower that collects rainwater for the landscaping. Inside, it’s bright and airy, with huge windows and a calming color palette (muted greens, greys and blues) that suggests an expensive Big Sur spa.
The menu is small and simple, featuring burgers, pizza, burritos, chili, salads and mac and cheese. (A style note: typically, I might put scare quotes around vegan “burgers” or “cheese” but since everything I consumed for this piece was a vegan or gluten-free version of its traditional self, I’m skipping those). Everything is vegetarian, and all menu items can be made gluten-free and vegan.
Like any self-respecting fast food place, the cornerstone of the menu is the burger. The burger (“The Amy”) comes with two patties made from what appeared to be a combination of grains, mushrooms and quinoa (Amy’s didn’t respond to a request for ingredient lists) and comes with traditional fixings: cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and a special sauce. The burger hit all of the right notes: a crispy burger; soft bun; flavorful pickles; lettuce and onion adding a welcome textural contrast; and a satisfyingly tangy sauce. The vegan cheese melted well and added a comforting texture. The patty--the Berliners say they went through over 1,000 versions of it before they settled on the current recipe. It had a nicely crisped edge and the mushrooms gave it a meaty texture.