It's possible that nobody outside the employ of a major chain has thought as much about fast food as Jon Hein. The Howard Stern satellite show host has produced a TV show (Fast Food Mania on Destination America) and now a book chronicling a lifelong love of what some call "good food quickly." Though the institution of fast food chain restaurants is almost five decades older than he — the first A&W was founded in 1919, Hein born in 1967 — it hasn't found its foremost documentarian until Hein took the scene. Unlike Super Size Me or Fast Food Nation, Hein's Fast Food Maniac is an unapologetic love letter to that most American of institutions.
Inside, you'll find breakdowns of all the national and local fast food chains including founding data, specialty items, and seasonal, as well as brief essays about each chain. And Hein has visited them all. From national chains like McDonald's and Burger King (not Hein's favorite, by any stretch) to regionals like In-N-Out and Pink’s, Hein's accounting of American fast food is unparalleled as far as we know. That’s not even mentioning his rankings or his chain-by-chain breakdown of secret menus, which alone might be worth the price of admission.
Why Fast Food is Important
There are a few things that makes it attractive to me. One is the food itself. I enjoy the different places that I go to. The other, though, which is almost as important, is the nostalgia and the warmness, and the comfort you get from going to places like these. Like, when I was doing the TV show, I would speak to a bunch of people at all these different places around the country, and very few of them raved about the food. It was more about, "Oh, I remember going here as a kid," or, "My mom would drive 100 miles just to go to Pizza Hut," or whatever. It was more stories of family and nostalgia, and I think having grown up with that as well, it's all that combined into something that's a lot of fun.
Why He Doesn't Go For The Healthy Option
I wouldn't say I moderate it. I've just learned to live with it. What I tell people is, "I think that if you're going to eat fast food, I'm not an advocate of grabbing a salad when you're there, or a "healthy option," because that's not what you went there for. I think, if you're going to do that, that's great. Then go to places that do that well. At these places, they don't do that particularly well. As a result, you sort of know what you're getting going in. What I do, is yeah, I'm very careful about monitoring levels of things like that, but I know I shouldn't be eating it all the time, yet, I can't help but eat it all the time.
The Best Fast Food Meal He's Ever Had
That's tricky, because I would get things from different places to make it the ultimate meal. I remember the first time I had a Blizzard from Dairy Queen, and I knew that, "Wow, this is something special." They rank number one on my shake list. I'm a big fan of Nathan's, but the Coney Island Nathan's. I had ranked them as having the best fries in the country. Once you have those… Again, when you go to Nathan's, you got to go to the Coney Island one, because there's something special in the water. I don't know what it is, but it makes it taste really, really good. When you get a McDonald's fries, when they're right out of the fryer, that definitely warms my taste buds when I eat that. Also, as I write about in the book, when I fly out to the West Coast, I stop at In-N-Out before I go to wherever I'm going. I take the cab driver with me. I don't care, I'll wait as long as it takes, because that's really special.
The first time I ordered my complete order off the secret menu of In-N-Out, and the person taking the order didn't even bat an eye, that was a very magical moment, no doubt.
Why Dave Thomas is a Great Fast Food Innovator
Well, when he worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken, he's the one who came up with the idea of the bucket to serve the chicken. He was a successful franchisee. Then when he did Wendy's, he made the burgers square instead of round. He instituted for the drive-through, because Wendy's always had the fastest drive-throughs, year after year. He's the one who created two separate grills, one for the customers in the restaurant, and one for the drive-through people. I got to work in a Wendy's drive-through, during the shooting of the television show. Everyone is on headset when you make an order, and they're already starting on whatever you order, so when you pull up, it's done. That's all Dave Thomas. He didn't want to be the spokesperson, and ended up being the spokesperson for 20 years, and people really came to love him. He's one of the most respected people within the fast food industry.
On the Most Underrated Menu Item
The most underrated to me, even though I made it number one in my list of sandwiches, is the Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich. It's simple and it tastes so good, and it's easy, and people absolutely love it. For me, I'm a fan of the simple stuff, because if you could do the simple stuff really, really well, then you're on to something, and I think Chick-Fil-A certainly is.
And Most Overrated
I would say it's the Whopper from Burger King. To me, with Burger King, again, their slogan is, "Have it your way." A Whopper should be great, and it's not. I know a lot of people swear by it, but for me, I don't like the patty. I don't like what they put on it, I don't like the size of it, the feel of it. When you get a Whopper, that thing should be like, one of those Hardee's thick burgers, and it just isn't.