Can healthy food be franchised? That’s the question I ask myself while waiting for my order at Fresh, a fast casual eatery that recently opened within the North City development of San Marcos. It’s the latest Fresh in a growing franchise of “healthy cafés” that has two dozen locations in North American and nowhere else in the world except (I was surprised) Lebanon and United Arab Emirates.
250 North City Drive, San Marcos
The menu reinforces its professed healthiness with breakfasty “power bowls” build around marketable superfoods such as acai and pitaya (a.k.a. dragon fruit), which also find their way into super smoothies, blended with the likes of kale or wheatgrass. Fresh backs up the idea its food is the opposite of stale with a “fresh squeeze” juice menu, and offers combining such things as avocado, blueberries, and hemp hearts.
There’s a real demand for something like this, especially considering its shiny new location mere footsteps from the Cal State San Marcos campus. It’s an affordable place to eat your fruits, vegetables, or smoked tofu, and it doesn’t ask you to be 100 percent vegan, or even vegetarian. The menu offers antibiotic, cage-free chicken, turkey, and egg options for most salads, wraps, and quinoa bowls, in addition to a panini menu bolstered by albacore tuna, bacon, and cheese.
I went for a panini, appreciative that I could order a half sandwich for $6.19 (versus a $9.39 whole). This freed up room to try the seasonal special: a $6.99 turmeric soup, loaded with kale, quinoa, cabbage, tomatoes, green onions, and lentils.
I can vouch for turmeric as an effective natural anti-inflammatory, but when the restaurant touts it as “detoxifying,” I suspect it really just means generally good for liver health. It takes a fair amount of turmeric to really experience these benefits, more than you see in most curries or spice blends where it’s used for flavor. I tasted plenty in this broth, but without a supporting cast of strong seasoning, I wouldn’t choose the earthy spice as a great way to spruce up organic veggie stock. It tasted thin and uninspiring.
Seeing the word organic describe that broth called my attention to the fact organic doesn’t appear often on the menu. Nor other bankable health food terms such as local farms, nor pesticide free. It’s possible Fresh sources this way and doesn’t advertise the fact, but this is a chain that makes a point to mention, “We grill a perfect panini every time — the proof is in the grill marks!” If you’d brag about grill marks, you wouldn’t miss an opportunity to crow about local or organic sourcing. You’d put it in bold letters under the words Fresh and Healthy.
The plentitude of bland veggies packed into my soup at Fresh were definitely brightly colored and crispy, and pretty much remained all three things so long after they had been submerged in broth.
Most restaurants manage to keep their ingredients fresh, so I don’t want to pat this place on the back for serving crisp vegetables. But I know there are logistical limitations to what a fast casual franchise can do, and I applaud this one’s effort to incorporate more vegetables than you'll find at any traditional fast food restaurant. But I admire it more in chains like Tender Greens and Mendocino Farms, where the regionally sourced produce is at least honest enough to wilt from time to time.