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The Changing Face of Fitness Food

Posted Jul 15 2010 7:05pm

Wow! Amazing feedback on real food superfoods . Love your ideas!

Anyone who has worked in book publishing has probably heard of a little ritual called the “slush lunch.” This is the hour in which editorial assistants gather, break bread, and collectively sift through and reject assess the about a month’s worth of “slush”–or unsolicited submissions. If you think this sounds glamorous, you’d best dim your enthusiasm: as Laura Miller pointed out in her latest essay on the brave new world of self-publishing , no one who has not had to read a slush pile can understand just how terrible a lot of it is, or how tedious it is to read. What makes slush lunch tolerable is the promise of a free meal, which any chronically impoverished and half-starving publishing assistant is thrilled to have.

Back in my assistant days, I briefly was in charge of organizing my company’s slush lunches. This meant, among other things, giving each assistant a periodic chance to request where we’d order takeout from. When my turn rolled around, I typically insisted on one place, and one only: The Pump .

The Pump–also known as “The Pump Energy Food”–was a chain of restaurants designed to satisfy the appetites of, if I may be crude, meatheads. Nearly everything on the menu was enhanced with a scoop of whey protein, a blob of coagulated egg whites, or a pound of steamed chicken. Why did I, then, insist on it? Because at the time, it was really one of the few places nearby that had nutrient dense vegetarian options (I hadn’t discovered OLD yet!). Yes, one can always find a salad on any mainstream dining menu, but what can be a drag as a vegan is finding salads or dishes that provide not only veggies, but appropriate sources of vegan protein, energy, and heft. The Pump, in spite of its adherence to a protein-obsessed mentality, did at least feature brown rice and veggies, BIG salads, baked falafel, hummus, tahini dressings, and veggie burgers.

Of course, this made me very happy. It did not make my coworkers very happy, and my turn as menu selector was usually greeted with a chorus of moaning and groaning. I asked my former coworker to comment upon what she remembers about the Pump, she replied:

“I have no memory of actually eating the food from Pump–I’ve probably repressed it–but I vividly recal staring at the columns on the take-out menu: It was like a fitness food SAT test. ‘Take one squirt of lentil soup from Row A, place on egg whites from Row B, then top with sprouts from Row C.’ It seemed everything involved pouring soup over your salad.”

Thanks, Annie. This is not an innacurate description of what the Pump once was: vegan friendly, but not because it felt ethically conscious, environmentally aware, or focused on local and organic foods, but because it pandered to a “clean eating” crowd. And it certainly didn’t feel like a pleasurable dining experience to anyone who wasn’t interested in getting ripped.

Oh, how times have changed!!! This, my friends, is the new face of The Pump :

A few weeks ago, I noticed that the Pump had moved to 17th Street (a block from my office). I chuckled. “Good old Pump, I thought. I wonder if they still serve six egg white omelets sprinkled with soy protein powder and fat free refried beans?” Curious, I decided to peek inside. And that’s when I realized that the whole ethos of the place has changed.

The new slogan at the pump is “diet food is out, real food is in.” And in keeping with this, the menu options have been totally reinvented. Yes, the SAT process is still in place: whether in a salad, wrap, or brown rice plate, you’re encouraged to a source of protein (organic tofu is offered, and I believe baked falafel is too), nutrient dense veggies and legumes (sweet potatoes, lentil soup, vegan chili), and good fats (hummus and guac are offered, along with cheese). But the quality of options is so much better! Tofu is organic. Vegetables are marinated and slow roasted–in other words, they’re prepared with flavor, rather than steaming alone. Dressings are housemade and fresh. And even the carnivorous options are a comparative upgrade: at least a few of them are grass fed.

And get this: The Pump also serves Norwalk pressed juices and unbelievably tasty smoothies, including a green smoothie that contains avocado. Um, what? When did the protein palace get so savvy about organic foods, quality ingredients, and, well, juicing?!

Needless to say, I was thrilled to see how radically the place had changed, and I marched back the next morning to scope it out with my camera. Check out the amazing cooler of fresh juices and smoothies, which are replenished all day:

As soon as I saw these amazing concoctions, I knew breakfast was served. But where to start? There were a plethora of options, including the green smoothie mentioned above and a blueberry ginger concoction that sounded divine but contained yogurt. Hoping modification would be easy, I requested a smoothie concoction of my own. And I got it:

Banana, blueberry, organic rice milk, ice, a touch of ginger, and–at my request–some hemp protein that I’d brought. No, I don’t usually carry around protein powder. I wanted to see if they’d be open to making a smoothie fresh to order and using a protein powder that wasn’t whey or soy, and they were!

I also picked up a delicious green apple+green juice that I enjoyed later at my desk:

I LOVE that the Pump offers pressed juice in an 8 oz size — 16 oz bottles can be too much, and I don’t like to leave fresh juices open for long, so an 8 oz bottle is a great snack sized option.

I also got some pictures of the menu, which includes far more options (and more vegan options) than what you’re going to see on the online menu :

Options for everyone.

Among my clients, self proclaimed athletes are, I must say, often the most difficult. People with evolving food habits simply want guidance and information; hardcore fitness enthusiasts, on the other hand, are often a bit stubborn and self righteous, lecturing me ad infinitum about the precise macro ratio they need, and the precise kind of protein, and how many calories at however many intervals. (If you’re so happy with this lifestyle, I always want to ask, then why did you call me?)

I like to think that places like The Pump are representative, though, of a major shift in the way the American consumer thinks about fitness food. Gone are the days where the only things recommended to athletes were watery protein shakes, egg whites, and brown rice. Sure, those foods still work for a lot of athletes, but I think that many other athletes are learning–just as the rest of us are learning–that quality is as important as macronutrient ratios, that organic and local matter as much as “high in protein,” and that plant based foods can provide just as much, if not more performance enhancing energy as animal foods. The Good Food Revolution is finally hitting the gym.

I ran this sentiment by Danny and Elizabeth, who are the directors of operations and publicity at The Pump. They confirmed that the chain has shifted emphasis away from fat-free and protein-obsessed, and toward organic, sustainable, and nutrient-dense. The Pump is and always will be a place where people who care about fitness flock, adn it will always offer its clientele protein-rich and lean food. But the definition of what constitutes high quality protein is expanding. Danny and Elizabeth seemed as enthusiastic as can be about these changes, and I hope that my own excitement was visible to them. It thrills me to see chains and restaurants that cater to a body-conscious group of eaters growing more and more open to a plant-inspired diet. Today, it’s The Pump. Tomorrow? Well, let’s just see that I’d love to see hummus, guac, vegan chili and pressed juice in every eatery and deli around the world.

One day.

For now, I have a new spot to get fresh smoothies, juices, and nutrient-dense salads — just the way I like ‘em! Sure, there are a few things I’d love to see incorporated into the Pump menu. I’d love more options than tofu in the “protein” section — maybe tempeh or quinoa, for instance. I’d love a vegan, non-soy protein powder at the smoothie bar. I’d love to see hemp and almond milk as options, along with rice and soy, and for the pre-made smoothies to have more rice milk and less yogurt.

And of course, I would love to see a more plant-based emphasis on the whole, meaning less meat options. But–and this is a huge “but”–I’m a big believer that menu segregation does little for veganism. Simply having eateries that are either all veg or omni-centric only compounds the idea that veganism is exotic and fringe. I love and support establishments that are all vegan, of course, but what we need are more eateries that offer equal opportunity for vegans and their non-vegan friends. I want to see turkey and chicken are served right next to tofu and lentil stew; egg whites and hemp seeds offered with equal enthusiasm; a plant-based entree for every grilled salmon fillet. That the Pump offers tofu and beans as protein options alongside more traditional,omnivorous proteins is, I think, a huge first step. After all, how many athletes and healthy eaters who would never otherwise taste a green smoothie or hummus on a salad will be willing to try them now, because the options are visible? Hooray to the Pump for offering that kind of visibility, and for evolving with our foodie zeitgeist. I can’t wait for my next visit.

And I’ll tell the new generation of assistants that they have a pretty great takeout option, too ;-)

xo

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