A healthy fast food concept might still be foreign to some – despite Subway's Jared-focused marketing campaign and McDonald's new, improved Happy Meals with apple slices.
But for Michael Jeffers, Alkis Crassas and Dino Lambridis, the all-American burgers, fries and shakes can be offered in a way that is actually good for you. They've been doing it since 1994.
The trio came up with the idea of EVOS after driving around one day looking for guiltless lunch options. Their search was fruitless.
"We saw a big gap in the marketplace. We wanted to recreate this food America is in love with, but make it healthier. We were up to the challenge," said Jeffers.
At the time, healthy fast food was nonexistent. Jared Fogle commercials didn't begin appearing until 2000 and the concept of "fast casual" was just starting to emerge. The void motivated the group; however their pace was purposefully slow.
"Going back to 1994, nobody was doing what we were doing. We didn't have anyone to copy, so we went through a lot of testing and development," Jeffers said. "We also took it slow because we are not strictly capitalists, we wanted to build an idea to live, eat and breathe a healthy lifestyle that is exemplified through our restaurants."
It wasn't easy to forge a new path. It took them six years to get where they were finally comfortable with the EVOS concept. Jeffers said their "true start date" was in 2000 because of this tedious process.
Concept's growth on the horizon
The company began franchising in late 2005. Now the EVOS chain is up to 10 locations in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina with plans for a slow and steady expansion with a mission of "offering America healthier fast food."
Although the current stores are inline units operating between 1,900 and 2,400 square feet, EVOS is testing a nonconventional pilot unit on university campuses through a partnership with Aramark signed in February. Jeffers said the initial focus will be on the East Coast.
The company is also pursuing additional nonconventional opportunities in airports.
"We can't disclose who we're working with now, but we're excited about this opportunity. We think the nontraditional space is the direction the market is heading in. Consumers are looking for something healthier and tasty while they're on the go," Jeffers said.
He adds that the company has been approached by international interests, including the Middle East and Africa regions, but the conversations remain "very preliminary."
Changing the perception of 'healthy eating'
Health and nutrition has barreled into the spotlight within recent years, landing on the top trends list by the National Restaurant Association and other industry research firms. When EVOS was getting started, however, Jeffers said one of the biggest challenges was fighting the collective marketplace perception.
"Overcoming the idea that healthy (food) doesn't taste good was hard. But that has been changing dramatically throughout the years. Consumers are demanding healthier options now. We've really come a long way," he said.
EVOS' menu seems familiar in the QSR/fast casual space – burgers, fries, wraps, shakes. However, the burgers are made with naturally and humanely raised beef grilled to order. All other proteins – chicken, turkey, fish – are cooked through the company's proprietary Airbaking system.
"We don't have deep fryers in our restaurants. They're not allowed," Jeffers said.
Accordingly, the Airfries contain 50 to 70 percent less fat than traditional fries. Also, shakes are made with organic milk, fresh fruit and all-natural juice.
Embracing another trend: sustainability
EVOS' healthier fare isn't the only component of the company that was ahead of the trend curve. It is also a sustainability pioneer and has repeatedly been recognized as the "greenest" U.S. burger chain by Greenopia, a directory to help guide consumers looking to make environmental and socially-conscious purchases.
In its latest review released in March, Greenopia ranked EVOS as tops for numerous reasons.
"EVOS has done a lot to make its restaurants as green as possible. They sell a variety of organic and fair trade products which are both ecologically and socially responsible. EVOS has incorporated many elements of green building design into its locations including natural building materials, no-VOC paints, efficient fixtures, and recycled items as well. EVOS also uses recycled-content items for menus and to-go containers. Finally, EVOS purchases wind credits to offsets its energy footprint," the review read.
Jeffers said sustainability has been part of EVOS' DNA since its inception.
"It's who we are as individuals and we just translated that into our business model," he said. "It's very important to us and we're very proud of the way we've executed this."
EVOS also provides a school lunch program, serving about 2,000 kids a week in its home state of Florida.
"It's a win-win for kids because they're eating healthier and they learn how to keep eating healthy," Jeffers said. "It's just part of our goal to put healthy food in people's mouths."
Read more about health and nutrition and sustainability.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.