CASA GRANDE -- Healthy eating can be touch and go at times for plenty of people. Many of us understand the tremendous impact a healthy diet can have on our fitness level, longevity and overall quality of life. So, we strive to make decisions when it comes to our food that will likely benefit our future.

But sometimes just figuring out a way to stick to that intention can be its own challenge. A commitment to clean eating demands conscious and consistent choices about the foods we consume, which often requires us to become more informed about our own nutrition and spend time stocking up on nutritious foods. Then there’s the meal planning and meal prepping — not to mention actually having to cook as well.

All of this can take up a good chunk of time and effort, and, in the midst of a hectic week, sometimes it can feel like we don’t have the energy or the time to keep up with our own well-meaning intentions.

Frankly, at times, it just makes more sense to pick up a quick meal on the way to or from work. For many people living in communities within Pinal, for a long time, that often meant having to settle for fast food due to a lack of nearby, quick and healthy options. The trend, however, is slowly shifting.

In spite of the last year, Pinal has witnessed consistent growth in its economy, which has come in the form of new developments and housing divisions as well as new and varied options for dining. Among this variety are restaurants that focus more on whole foods and making meals to cater to those who want to focus on their health.

These restaurants are diverse in their missions and culinary approaches, but one thing they have in common is that they’ve made nutritious options more readily available to residents in Pinal. In this article, we highlight only two of those restaurants. However, as the county continues to grow, it is likely that the number of restaurants with similar focuses on organic, locally sourced and healthy foods will only continue to grow.

Salad and Go, Casa Grande

There’s a lot to be said about the benefits of regularly eating salad. Salads are a great source of fiber and healthy fats and have been proven to help stave off the development of diseases like cancer.

But for area residents on the go, finding a place that serves fresh salads fast was anything but easy. At least that was the case until a small drive-thru serving up salad at any time of the day opened up at 1322 E. Florence Blvd. in Casa Grande.

Salad and Go started serving the Casa Grande area in June. Since then, the “fast-food” restaurant with a healthy food mission has been serving hundreds of freshly prepared salads a day.

“Ever since day one, people have come out and been extremely kind and appreciative that we’re there,” said Chief Executive Officer Joel Chrisman about the CG location. “It’s done way better than we expected.”

The idea behind Salad and Go is an interesting one. Not only does the restaurant offer take-out-only options through the drive-thru and in-person pickup window — fairly unique to restaurants catering to healthy eating — but also their mission focuses on making healthy eating accessible and affordable to everyone.

“We’re a drive-thru concept that’s really focused on providing quick, convenient, affordable (and) healthy options to our guests,” Chrisman said.

A salad from Salad and Go can cost anywhere from under $6 to under $9 depending on how you choose to customize it.

“It’s almost like we’ve been trained to believe that a good, healthy salad should cost $13 to $15, and honestly we see no reason for that,” Chrisman said. “I think when you make healthy food expensive, it becomes inaccessible to some. Our belief is that people want to eat healthy, and they want to have access to healthy food but it’s gotta be convenient for them, it’s got to be at a price that they can afford and it’s gotta be good.”

The chain, which currently has locations in 12 cities around Arizona and a few in Texas, is able to provide this level of affordability by keeping overhead costs as low as possible.

Stores are built small so as to be less labor intensive. There are no dining rooms, which also brings down the costs associated with maintenance and labor. The chain has also worked to actively engage customers to help keep costs down by avoiding taking extra napkins, forks, etc. when they’re not needed. And though everything on the menu is made to order, speed and efficiency also factor into the business model with employees being trained to build a fresh salad in under 15 seconds.

“We don’t really mind being put in the bucket of fast food because we’re trying to disrupt fast food,” Chrisman said. “We want to be on every corner of every fast-food chain and allow people to make the choice. It’s not saying that we’re better or that you should come here, it’s saying that we’re providing healthy and nutritious food.”

Chrisman noted that in order to make the concept of healthy food at a cheaper price point work, Salad and Go operates with a focus toward selling as many salads and other menu items as possible throughout the course of the day — which makes elements like the accuracy and speed of the drive-thru incredibly important — while still offering customers a welcoming and friendly experience.

“We do everything with this eye toward ‘how do we keep costs as low as possible, while sourcing the highest quality ingredients and paying the highest wage possible?’” Chrisman said.

Some recipes, like the cobb and caesar salads, may be familiar to customers. However, all the recipes have been curated by Chef Daniel Patino — an award-winning and classically trained chef whose history includes working at the 3-star Michelin restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville, California.

The chain’s menu also focuses on incorporating organic, all-natural and — at times — seasonal ingredients.

“We want healthy, natural, sustainable kinds of foods in our restaurants sourced organically whenever and wherever we can,” Chrisman said.

On top of its commitment to affordability, Salad and Go is also highly focused on making healthy food accessible to many and giving back to the community. Chrisman estimates that on average the company donates over 4,000 freshly made salads every week to nonprofit organizations dedicated to fighting hunger across the state. Partners include organizations like St. Vincent de Paul Society, UMOM and the Salvation Army.

He noted that donated salads are made with the same fresh ingredients served to guests that order from Salad and Go locations.

“At one of our partner (organizations), if you get a salad on a Tuesday, it’s the same fresh ingredients that you’re getting as a guest on a Tuesday,” Chrisman said. “We want to make sure that everyone has access to the same food.”

The philanthropic side of food accessibility is something the company takes very seriously, incorporating what Chrisman refers to as a “culture team” — a group of staff members dedicated to developing strong community partnerships. On top of delivering the fresh ingredients for the donated salads, team members will even assist partnering organizations in preparing the food.

Customers can also find a bit more on the Salad and Go menu that goes beyond salad. Chrisman noted that everything customers can order as a salad can also be ordered in the form of a wrap. During chillier times of the year, soups are also another popular item on the chain’s menu. And while the organization serves salad at all times of the day, it also offers a breakfast menu with an array of breakfast burritos or bowls for just under $3 as well as other breakfast items like a 24-ounce organic cold brew.

The concept allows for patrons to meal-plan despite the busyness of their day, with Chrisman noting that many customers will often come in the morning to pick up their breakfast and their salad for lunch before heading off to work.

“I want people to try it,” Chrisman said. “It’s at a price point that I think people should try it (and) I think they’ll fall in love with the taste and the flavor profiles.”

And with many up and coming locations both in Arizona and Texas already in the works, Chrisman says he foresees plenty of opportunities for growth in the area.

Roots Eatery, Maricopa

While regularly opting for foods that are high in nutrients like fruits and vegetables and consuming fewer processed foods is an important component to eating healthy, it’s not the only thing that counts.

Sometimes where food comes from as well as how it’s produced and prepared is equally as important. At Roots Eatery in Maricopa, incorporating in-season ingredients into dishes that are attentively crafted is at the heart of the restaurant’s mission.

Chef-owner Chris Spear, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Upstate New York, started Roots as a customizable catering company called Cooking from Roots seven years ago. The business started out of Spear’s home. From there, it grew and in 2020 he opened up the eatery located at 20046 N. John Wayne Parkway in Maricopa.

Spear describes the restaurant as a “chef-driven” eatery that runs on seasonal menus. Menus change about eight times every year to ensure the focus is always on fresh ingredients and to keep the offerings exciting for both chefs and customers. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, Spear says Roots is really about serving “healthy, clean food” balanced with “classic comfort food with a culinary twist.”

For some menu items, the idea is to take a dish that customers may be extremely familiar with and present a unique take on it through the use of different finishing oils or cooking techniques. The end result is a dish that still gives customers the sense of familiarity and comfort that they might have gotten from their grandmother’s cooking, but with a modern-day approach, Spear said.

But the idea of traditional, home-style cooking is still very much a part of what Roots is about, with the restaurant’s name referring to family traditions and traditional cooking as opposed to the literal meaning of vegetable and plant roots.

“A lot of the roots is more about family traditions — like (how) we’re bringing families back to the dinner table (and how) we have that modern-day grandmother’s (cooking) feel. We don’t really have recipes, we listen to our ancestors when we’re seasoning our potatoes and making our sauce and things like that,” Spear said.

Part of the way the restaurant strives to expose customers to new foods is by keeping burgers and sandwiches off the dinner menu. Those options are only available during brunch and lunch hours.

“Maricopa is a unique spot and I want everyone out here to know that there’s more to eat than a hamburger two, three, four times a week,” Spear said. “There’s a lot of food to introduce Maricopans to.”

Each seasonal menu for Roots always features what Spear terms as a “curveball” — an unexpected food that most customers may have never tried. On the spring menu the curveball was escargot, on the menu before that it was alligator baby-back ribs and at one point the menu even featured beef carpaccio.

The summer menu, which was launched in July, marks the one-year anniversary since Roots Eatery opened its doors and primarily focuses on favored staple dishes from the past year. However, Spear noted that customers should expect to see a new curveball on the following season’s menu.

Both the lunch and dinner menus also feature a “Forks over Knives” section, which showcases menu items where vegetables or fruits are the star of the dish. And while some of those items can be vegan-friendly, Spear says even those items are meant to be enjoyable for everyone.

“Just because you’re not a vegan doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try our jackfruit tacos, (which is) a 100% vegan dish on our menu,” he said.

In addition to its restaurant and event-catering options, Roots also takes an innovative approach when it comes to helping provide busy area locals regular access to fresh and balanced meals through its meal prepping services.

Spear says the idea to offer meal prepping as part of the catering end of the business came about as he started to hear more and more about meal prepping from friends. He saw an opportunity to do something extra to help fill in the gaps on slower days for the catering business while also giving customers a convenient way to incorporate balanced meals into their diet even with their busy schedules.

Though Cooking from Roots takes dietary restrictions into serious account when meal prepping for customers, Spear noted that beyond making adjustments to account for food allergies and food intolerances, the focus is more on clean, healthy and balanced eating rather than adherence to calorie counting.

“I’m a firm believer that you can eat whatever you want to eat, you just gotta eat in moderation,” he said. “If we work on our portion control, making sure we put a couple roasted potatoes in there so people still get their fix but then really filling up on the broccoli and the other superfoods, then it would be good for them.”

Portions also typically include 5-6 ounces of fish or about 6-7 ounces of meat. The concept, Spear said, is really about encouraging customers to eat smaller meals throughout the day rather than relying on one big meal.

“We’re providing healthy food, but we’re just not telling people how many calories are in there,” he said. “We’re trying to showcase a lot of simple foods done and prepared right.”

Some offerings are even locally sourced, with the restaurant partnering up with 6th Day Farms in Maricopa to provide poultry. Roots is also working with the farm to raise a steer, Spear noted — another way the restaurant is working toward its focus commitment to quality and clean food in its menu.

In conjunction with the exposure to new foods, cooking styles and clean eating Roots Eatery aims to give customers, the restaurant affords a special experience to diners.

Roots features what Spear describes as a “full-blown” open kitchen. The open-kitchen concept not only gives curious patrons a very open view into how their food is prepared, but it also enables them to interact with the chefs. Chefs at Roots, Spear noted, even bring out food as it’s prepared and socialize with guests.

In addition to creating a welcoming atmosphere, having a level of easy access to the chefs makes asking questions about the food and getting the answers much more efficient to customers, he noted.

“The chefs are the star of the show,” Spear said. “We have a lot of integrity, we have a lot of pride and passion that we put into what we do (and) we want to show that off. We want to welcome (customers) like they’re entering their grandma’s kitchen.” PW

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