On quality

I discovered Energy Kitchen in 2004 or 2005, when it had but one lonely outpost, randomly, on Second Avenue near 59th Street in Manhattan. I wandered in looking for a fast meal and emerged with freshly grilled chicken and brown rice in a healthy wrap. Low calorie, fresh and delicious—oh, and by the way, low-calorie and low-fat, too. Genius!

A few years later, Energy Kitchen went into expansion mode, and in short order had what felt like a dozen or more outlets around the city. One opened on West 23rd Street by my then-office. I excitedly stopped in shortly after opening, and found an updated menu—now with more nouveau options, like bison—as well as modern decor and a ticketing system for the lunch rush. Oh, and by the way, every entree was under 500 calories. Still genius.

Only now, Energy Kitchen wasn’t a friendly novelty restaurant. It was one of a growing chain, and it showed. The lunch rush at the store on 23rd was poorly managed; staff actually set up a holding pen for people to wait for their food, forcing us to loiter uncomfortably next to the trash cans. The wait times were often rather long. And despite the new fast-food underpinnings, the prices stayed high; if memory serves, that bison burger was a $12 item. (I never got around to trying it.)

And, most importantly, the food went downhill. As a burgeoning quick service chain with a fair number of stores, Energy Kitchen had to harness economies of scale. That meant pre-packaging some food items rather than cooking them fresh, which degraded both the quality and the flavor of a meal. I once watched in disappointment as the cooks carried a tray of chicken up from the basement: many small plastic bags of parboiled chicken, already cut, ready for a quick spin in a microwave and an unceremonious dump into a wrap. So much for fresh and grilled.

So today’s news of Energy Kitchen’s demise, while unexpected, is not that surprising. The chain positioned itself as having a smart product: healthy, flavorful and satisfying. But Energy Kitchen charged upscale prices for a product that ceased to be upscale, despite the claims on the front window. I imagine many health-conscious customers went looking for organic and locavore cuisine rather than save a few calories on pre-bagged poultry. It’s a classic case of failing to deliver on the brand’s promise.

Which is a shame, because at the outset, Energy Kitchen had a great idea and great execution. Above all else, the quality of the product will ultimately define the success or failure of an organization.