One afternoon last fall in New York, walking toward the subway at Union Square, I decided to lose the tortilla.
For months, Taco Bell had been urging America to drop by for a taste of its Cantina Bell menu. TV commercials featured celebrity spokeschef Lorena Garcia touring dewy fields of cilantro and welcoming viewers into a kitchen where she and her associates lovingly ladled black beans over rice. She laid oblong medallions of grilled chicken atop beds of romaine lettuce, roasted corn, and vermilion slivers of pepper and tomato. "Making a burrito bowl, I think, made Taco Bell a little bit nervous—mostly because they're used to wrapping everything in a tortilla," Garcia explains in one spot. "But I said, 'Guys, lose the tortilla and share these beautiful ingredients with the world.’ "
"Beautiful ingredients" aren't the first things one associates with Taco Bell, a chain that last year enjoyed record-shattering success with its Doritos Locos Taco, a $1.29 fistful of garbage dusted in neon-orange sodium that tasted vaguely like cheese and synergy. They certainly weren't the first things I saw when I sat down with my Cantina Bowl, from which pale green guacamole and a lumpy tuft of grated Monterey Jack stared back at me from a valley of rice, romaine, and meat as if to croak, "Ta-daaaahhh."
Yet despite its unremarkable appearance, the Cantina Bowl was remarkable for what it signified. It was a shot across the bow to competitors like Chipotle, a company that had based nearly two decades of rapid growth on wholesome, sustainably raised ingredients prepared in-store before Taco Bell ever enlisted Chef Garcia for an offensive of its own.
In essence, it was the latest salvo in the Fresh Wars.
The Fresh Wars have advertisers, marketers, and chefs embroiled in a battle for the title of freshest American fast food—and for the business of an increasingly sophisticated and conscientious populace of eaters. Taco Bell vs. Chipotle is just the start. The tagline "Eat Fresh" has helped Subway eclipse McDonald's as the world's largest fast-food chain. But Arby's crusade to "Slice Up the Truth About Freshness" aims to sow doubts about Subway's food sourcing while wooing customers with meat sliced on-premises. Meanwhile, Domino's Pizza has spent more than three years and untold millions reinventing its pizza and its image as models of quality and transparency, a gambit that has at least two high-profile competitors following suit.
The skirmishes emphasize the extraordinary value of one abstract concept for an industry desperate to capitalize on health and sourcing trends without actually having to invest in high-quality ingredients. Fresh doesn't have to be low-calorie or even especially nutritious—a burrito with ingredients prepared on-site at Chipotle may pack three times the calories of a burger. Nor does fresh require pathologically locavorian supply-chain standards: As Arby's has revealed, a sandwich from Subway might contain cold-cuts processed, packaged, and shipped from a centralized facility in Iowa. Better yet for retailers like Taco Bell, Domino's, and Arby's, the mere implications of freshness can be sold at a premium to new customers who otherwise might have avoided those chains' wares altogether. The only unabashedly pure thing about the concept of fresh is its subjectivity.
"I think it's meaningless, almost, now," says Mark Crumpacker, the chief marketing officer with Chipotle. "You could claim that something very heavily processed was fresh, I guess. I don't think there are any rules around 'fresh.' You can just say it with impunity. And I think lots of people do."
So maybe "Is it fresh?" isn't the question we should be asking ourselves as we lose the tortilla, slice up freshness, and muddle through the trenches of fast-food trends. Instead, amid the varying strategies, we have a much more basic and far more crucial determination to make: What does fresh even mean?
Most of us can probably agree that the concept of fresh, in its quintessence, implies a meal or ingredient consumed as few degrees removed from its source as possible. Believe it or not, such a common-sense definition of fresh once actually existed in the fast-food marketplace, at Taco Bell in the late 1970s, when it had a few hundred restaurants nationwide and was known as the Fresh Food Place:
You can find sentimental Taco Bell consumers and employees from this era around the Web recounting the Fresh Food Place's qualifications with pride: Ground beef arrived at stores daily, unfrozen. Lettuce, tomatoes and onions were cleaned and chopped up on site. Cheese was grated and tortillas fried into taco shells each morning. Refried beans were prepared in store from whole pinto beans also delivered daily. (One Taco Bell alum cites a hazing ritual in which new employees would be assigned to "count the beans that went into each batch.") Thirty years ago, it seems, fresh actually meant the same thing in commercials as it does in dictionaries.
Today, the fast-food universe’s usage of fresh has nothing to do with the textbook definition of the word. In most ways, fresh has nothing to do with food at all. It's become a convolution, tied up with manufactured images of authenticity, transparency, and even morality—the fleeting ecstasy of doing what consumers are persuaded to believe is the good, right thing.