At B.Good, the New England-based franchise that opened its second Raleigh restaurant on the ground floor of downtown's gleaming Charter Square in mid-March, two large, square-shaped hardcover books flank the cash registers. They stand half open, as though pleading to be picked up.
If you're in line, go ahead and grab a copy of How We Do What We Do: Ingredients, Nutrition & Stories of Real Food Made by People Not Factories. Inside the bound, forty-page volume, where "STORE COPY" is printed across the front in a military-grade font that suggests a rapacious black market exists for filched B.Good propaganda, colorful portraits of smiling farmers and playful cartoons of food chains illustrate ooo-rah essays about local sourcing and big, boastful nutritional charts.
You might even recognize a familiar face in what's ostensibly the North Carolina edition, available only here and in B.Good's eighteen-month-old North Hills location—Russell Vollmer, of Vollmer Farm, thirty-five miles to the north, or Bob Nutter, patriarch of Maple View Farm, forty-two miles to the west.
As you stare at the printed page, or perhaps the same field-based photos, blown up beyond life size and hanging on the restaurant's bright red walls, the burger you wanted suddenly becomes something more: a local patty, sourced from the smiling family in nearby Pinetops, and served with sweet potatoes grown by Jimmy Burch, who grins from his own permanent post above the organic soda machine. It all seems, somehow, a little healthier, a little more community-oriented, a little better for everyone and everything involved.
You may even decide you'll return before putting the book back down. You may even change your mind.
Save for a Starbucks tucked into a hotel lobby and a McDonald's at the edge of Shaw University, a Chick-fil-A that is occasionally open and some Subways and Jimmy John's whose scents seem to waft always through the city streets, B.Good is the first legitimate chain to take a gamble on modern downtown Raleigh. It's a smart bet, too, as B.Good taps into two momentarily dominant restaurant trends, one of which the city center has and another it desperately needs.
First, B.Good is a "fast casual" chain, meaning, like Panera or Chipotle, it pairs the counter-only service of fast-food institutions with the boosted quality and customization you'd expect from a full-service spot. Thanks to factors including increased minimum wages and food-consumer conscience, the concept is one of the fastest growing, most desirable models in the industry.
B.Good conspicuously exploits that second factor, by alluding to its local sourcing virtually everywhere in the restaurant. Overhead, televisions play loops of B.Good's good deeds and better farms. A chalkboard map of North Carolina pinpoints the origins of your particular location's beef and cheese, bread and milk, and it is dutifully replicated on the menu. There are those portraits, those books, and, behind the counter, a grocery-store-size shelf of produce that no one ever seems to touch. There are North Carolina beers on tap and North Carolina ice cream on reserve for vanilla and chocolate milkshakes, B.Good's only desserts. B.Good is the high-speed logical extension of this farm-to-fork moment.
B.Good's third animating concept is an ecumenical one, if it's rarely attempted beneath one roof with such aplomb: half of the menu features burgers and fries, while the other features quinoa-based bowls and salads stocked with superfoods and assorted greens. In a play between health heaven and caloric hell, those milkshakes square off against acai smoothies. The idea is a splendid one—fast food that wears the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, sourced from close quarters whenever possible.
But too often the food seems to suffer from such indecision, with meals that are, at best, just fine. The burgers are decent—the beef comes in a thick, house-ground patty, while the veggie version is a similarly dense scramble of grains and greens. The house specialties, including the Tex-Mex "West Side" or the Gouda-and-mushroom mush of the "Adopted Luke," and a rotating seasonal selection seem inspired, if they don't really taste that way. The flavors smear together, each vying for so little ground they collectively don't gain much.
The same holds for the salads and bowls; try the "Power Bowl" blindfolded, and you may not even notice the Brussels sprouts slivered and grilled inside, certainly not the pepitas. The beets and garbanzos of the "Harvest Kale" surrender beneath a mountain of coarse greens and a barely detectable sherry vinaigrette. A side of "crisp veggies" seems simply warmed and slathered with shredded cheese, a slap in the face for the farmers on eternal watch a few feet away.
Of them all, it's the Burch family from Faison—Jimmy, Jimmy, and Jared—who fare best. Their sweet potatoes become the menu's masterpiece when cut into short, stubby fries. They are alternately crispy and crackling or hot and moist, popping with the first bite like some savory fruit gusher. Dip them in the jalapeño ranch or the perfectly balanced Sir Kensington's ketchup, and you too will buy into B.Good's compromise of mindful indulgence, at least temporarily.
But then you'll leave and remember that, a hundred yards from B.Good's front door, Happy+Hale, a local shop that's also just opened its second location, occupies one of four glass cubes flanking Raleigh City Plaza. For about the same price as a B.Good's "Power Bowl," you can have most anything you want, and it will almost certainly have more flavor and pizzazz. Cut a block over to Wilmington Street, and you'll soon find Chuck's, where a "Dirty South" burger is totally worth the extra buck or two.
Maybe that's the ultimate eat-local assertion of a place like B.Good, an early entry in what will surely be a continued trickle of chains. Oftentimes, we already do what they do—simply better.