Amy's Kitchen plans fast-food restaurant in Rohnert Park

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The Big Mac and the Double-Double Animal Style appear destined to face off in Rohnert Park with a different sort of fast-food competitor: the veggie burger with organic fries and toppings.

Petaluma-based Amy's Kitchen, one of the nation's largest makers of natural frozen foods, is planning to open its first fast-food restaurant and drive-thru near the casino now taking shape in Rohnert Park.

The menu would include fresh vegetarian burgers, burritos, pizzas, organic fries and salads made with organic produce from local growers. Patrons could quench their thirst with organic shakes, smoothies and healthy drinks, Amy's co-founder and CEO Andy Berliner said Monday.

"As far as I know, it's really unique," he said of the concept. What will set the restaurant apart "will be the great taste of the food."

Amy's, with sales projected to reach $380 million this year, recently purchased two parcels for the restaurant at the southwest corner of Wilfred Avenue and Redwood Drive. In-N-Out Burger sits a few hundred yards south, and a McDonald's has been approved by the city just to the north.

Berliner and his wife, Rachel, founded Amy's in 1988 and named it after their daughter Amy. Today, the company employs nearly 1,900 workers, including 1,000 in Sonoma County. It has facilities in Santa Rosa, Oregon and England, and it plans to one day renovate an existing food plant in South Carolina.

Consumers have long urged Amy's to operate a restaurant, Berliner said. In 2011, the Berliners considered but passed on opening a small, fast-food restaurant in Sebastopol. Still, Berliner said he wants to test the idea, and he believes more Americans are ready to enjoy Amy's style of food.

"They're not becoming vegetarians, but they are eating less red meat and they want to have a healthier lifestyle," he said.

The restaurant is scheduled to open in the spring of 2014. If it succeeds, "we could just keep expanding it," he said.

Berliner acknowledged officials in some cities oppose drive-thrus because of pollution concerns.

"We don't have any real solutions yet, except for really quick service," he said. However, he maintained that "the positive environmental impact of organic is huge" compared to the "carbon imprint" of conventional farming.

The new restaurant would be built near a new freeway underpass and an expanded onramp and offramp. The nearby casino project, under construction on the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria reservation, is bringing growth to the area.

"This is going to be one of the busiest sites in Sonoma County," Berliner said.

Along with the McDonald's, the city has approved an adjacent hotel. Rohnert Park is in the midst of crafting an area development plan, possibly with a shopping center, hotel and other retail.

As well, the city plans to go to bid this year to widen Wilfred to four lanes and renaming it Golf Course Drive West.

"It will be a very busy thoroughfare," said Marilyn Ponton, Rohnert Park's acting development services director.

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