SOMERVILLE, Mass. ­- Gary Hirshberg isn’t the first parent to become frustrated by the lack of healthy fast-food options for his kids during a road trip. But as president of Stonyfield Farm yogurt company, Hirshberg was in a position to do something about it.

Now, six years after that fateful vacation in northern California, Hirshberg is overseeing a project he hopes will spark a revolution in the fast-food industry. It’s called O’Naturals, a small chain of fast-food restaurants in the Northeast that offers everything from carrot ginger soup and organic smoked tofu to bison meatloaf sandwiches, and macaroni and cheese, much of it made with organic or natural ingredients.

O’Naturals opened its fourth store in April in a former bakery at the edge of the trendy Davis Square neighborhood in Somerville, a Boston suburb, and plans are under way to expand the chain across the nation through franchises.

“We call it “fast food with a mission,”‘ said Hirshberg, who envisions his restaurants shaking up the restaurant business in much the same way that Whole Foods Market shook up the grocery trade.

At a time when McDonald’s is championing salads and Burger King is offering a veggie burger, Hirshberg and a handful of other entrepreneurs are taking things a step further, emphasizing how the food is produced as much as how it tastes.

One of the most successful examples is the Chipotle chain, which has 450 restaurants nationwide and is partly owned by McDonald’s. Several years ago it began offering tacos and burritos with Niman Ranch pork, which means the pigs are raised outdoors and do not eat feed containing hormones or antibiotics. Pork sales at the restaurant jumped sixfold, and Chipotle recently started offering antibiotic-free chicken at many of its restaurants.

“If you take a Niman Ranch pork chop and take it next to a factory farm pork chop, there’s a big difference,” said Steve Ells, founder and chief executive officer of Chipotle. Besides selling food that tastes better, Ells said, selling food raised in a more humane and environmentally sustainable way is the right thing to do.

“We really think we can change the supply chain for the better,” he said, noting that Chipotle is slowly adding organic ingredients if supplies are available and not too costly.

“We don’t want to serve an $18 burrito,” Ells said, adding, “You can’t flip a switch and have it all free-ranging and organic overnight.”

Not everyone is convinced that healthy fast food will succeed any better than it has in the past. “If I had a nickel for every time somebody told me times are different, I’d be a millionaire,” said Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, which tracks what people eat.

In Colorado, the Good Times burger chain is following a formula similar to Chipotle’s, making hamburgers from “all-natural” beef that doesn’t contain hormones or antibiotics.

In Tampa, the EVOS chain offers tacos made with free-range beef and hormone-free chicken. Its french fries are baked rather than fried, reducing fat by three-quarters.

“I think the trends are definitely going in that direction,” said Steven Hoffman, president of Compass Natural Marketing in Colorado, a marketing consultant for organic and natural-foods companies. “Look at Whole Foods Market. It’s a $4 billion company. This is spilling out into fast food. It is probably the last frontier for healthy foods.”

While Hoffman is optimistic that the new healthy fast-food restaurants will succeed, a history of spectacular health-food failures suggests otherwise. Remember the McLean Deluxe? The burger was lower in fat thanks to a seaweed derivative mixed with the meat, but when McDonald’s offered the sandwich to consumers in the early 1990s, few were interested.

Similarly, the D’Lites chain in the early 1980s offered low-fat burgers on multigrain buns, vegetarian sandwiches and salads, and it quickly grew to 104 restaurants, prompting one of its founders to proclaim, “We’re on the leading edge of an up-and-coming consumer wave.” But the D’Lites wave crashed about five years after it began.

Harry George, an Evanston, Ill., native who lives in Arizona, hoped to turn the Blind Faith Cafe, the popular vegetarian restaurant in Evanston, into a chain of restaurants, albeit more formal than fast-food stores. He opened a second Blind Faith Cafe on Lincoln Avenue several years ago but it closed after a year, a failure he attributes to poor location and inadequate parking.

“Our thought was to expand Blind Faith Cafe to five units,” George said. “Five is kind of the magic number for getting outside revenue for restaurants, because then you can prove it’s the concept and not the location.”

Balzer said O’Naturals may well find a sizable niche like Whole Foods, which now has 170 stores and 59 in the works. But if Hirshberg hopes to play at the level of McDonald’s, with more than 30,000 locations, his restaurant will have to compete with other mega-chains on taste, convenience and price, Balzer said.

“The major shift in the supermarket industry was not Whole Foods,” he said. “It was Wal-Mart. How did they do it? By making it healthier? By making it easier? They own cheap.”

But Hirshberg said the success of Stonyfield Farm, now America’s largest organic yogurt business, shows that Americans are willing to pay more for higher-quality food. He likens the costs at O’Naturals, where sandwiches cost $6 to $7.50, to the Panera Bread chain.

“Some of our fastest-growing items are a dollar or more than our competition,” Hirshberg said, referring to Stonyfield. Noting the success of Cosi and Panera, he said there are “big, big changes happening in this country as people realize that you get what you pay for.”

The inspiration for O’Naturals was a Hirshberg family vacation in northern California in 1999, when family members became “frustrated hostages to junk food.” He later had an epiphany when he took a carload of kids to the deli counter at Whole Foods, and they happily dined on organic pizza and other healthy fare.

Hirshberg enlisted an old friend to run O’Naturals day-to-day, a former executive from L.L. Bean named Mac McCabe. They opened the first O’Naturals in Portland, Maine, in 2001 and now envision not only more freestanding stores, but also O’Naturals counters in airports and supermarkets.

Noting the checkered history of health-food joints, Hirshberg said he and McCabe were careful to focus first on taste. O’Naturals uses organic ingredients whenever possible and food that is less processed than the fare found at traditional fast-food restaurants.

“We don’t really talk about healthy anywhere in our restaurant,” Hirshberg said. “That’s very intentional. Not because it isn’t. We want them to enjoy the food for the food, and then to feel that health is a benny.”

CHAINS

The latest fast-food trend isn’t about secret sauces, it’s about promoting freshness, quality ingredients and healthful eating. Among the claims:

O’NATURALS

Locations: 4

Opened: 2001

Ingredients do not contain additives or preservatives. The chain also uses organically raised or grown ingredients in many of its items.

CHIPOTLE

Locations: 450

Opened: 1993

Uses mostly animals raised outdoors without hormones or antibiotics.

McDONALD’S

Locations: More than 30,000

Opened: 1955

Offers a fruit and walnut salad.

BURGER KING

Locations: More than 11,000

Opened: 1954

Has added Morningstar Farms garden veggie burgers to the menu.


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