ROHNERT PARK -- Amy's Kitchen brought the convenience of frozen vegetarian meals to the grocery aisle 25 years ago, and now the Petaluma-based packaged-foods company wants to do the same for the fast-food drive-through.

The Berliner family, who started and own Amy's, purchased nearly three acres of land at the southwest corner of Wilfred Avenue and Redwood Boulevard in northwest Rohnert Park in mid-December and intend to submit plans this month for a 3,500-square-foot drive-through restaurant, according to Andy Berliner. The goal is to open the first Amy's Kitchen quick-serve restaurant by spring 2014.

Plans are being crafted by the Petaluma office of retail architecture specialist Stantec and Berkeley-based retail design firm Trachtenberg Architects.

"It will be a regular fast-food restaurant similar to McDonald's, but it will be serving Amy's burritos, pizza, organic shakes and healthy drinks," he said.

The strategy is to leverage Amy's successful retail recipes and the economies of scale at the Santa Rosa production plant. Amy's hopes to be able to move fresh-prepared menu items to customers as fast as could be expected from existing and planned fast-food franchises around the Rohnert Park site and at about as little of a price premium as Amy's packaged meals have over conventional meals in stores.

Sales of Amy's foods approached $350 million last year. The company's purchasing scale is massive, buying 40 million pounds of tomatoes annually, for example. A small portion of the ingredients prepared for Amy's frozen and packaged foods at the Santa Rosa plant would be transported to the Rohnert Park restaurant to be used in finished dishes.

[caption id="attachment_68334" align="alignleft" width="402"] Andy and Rachel Berliner with their daughter, Amy[/caption]

That's why the Berliners have been scouting a half-hour travel distance from the plant for the first restaurant site for the past few years. In mid-2011, they worked with the Pasta Bella Saute & Grill site in Sebastopol to establish the first site. That location had a drive-through feature years ago, but re-establishing it amid a public policy shift away from that kind of access made the Berliners look elsewhere.

The Rohnert Park site is at the gateway to major retail, entertainment and hospitality development in and near the city. The location is directly at the new Wilfred Avenue southbound exit from Highway 101 and near the entrance to the forthcoming $800 million Graton Resort and Casino under construction further down Wilfred. The planned completion of the casino portion of the project this fall has been inspiring further retail and hospitality development at the Wilfred-Redwood intersection. For example, the city has received proposals for a McDonald's restaurant and a hotel on the north side of Wilfred.

If the first Amy's Kitchen restaurant goes well, the Berliners are considering other locations within a few hours road distance from Santa Rosa to allow distribution of fresh ingredients. The other plant near Medford, Ore., could also be a foodservice distribution hub for restaurants there, according to Mr. Berliner.

A potential East Coast hub for future restaurants, a planned plant in Greenville, S.C., remains on hold for at least another year. Unforeseen costs in converting it for company needs has made Amy's continue to reinvest in boosting production at existing U.S. plants, according to Mr. Berliner.

The idea for Amy's Kitchen restaurants came from consumer suggestions about 15 years ago, he said.

"People want something good to eat when they're on the road," he said.

Concepts for vegetarian, organic and natural foods fast-food restaurants are sprouting up around the country and world. McDonald's is moving toward opening vegetarian restaurants in India. Santa Monica-based Veggie Grill recently raised $20 million and plans to open 16 more West Coast restaurants in the next 18 months.

According to a report earlier this month by Chicago-based market research firm Technomic, 64 percent of consumers say eating healthfully and paying attention to nutrition are important. That's up from 57 percent in the firm's 2010 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report.

Mark Levin of Cypress Realty Advisors represented Amy's Kitchen Restaurant Holdings, LLC, in the purchase of the two Rohnert Park land parcels. Martin Levy of Century 21 NorthBay Alliance represented Grenz Living Trust in the sale of one parcel. Jeff Ottman, now with Lanterra Real Estate Services, represented 58 Wilfred, LLC, in the other deal.