When 12-year-old George Brown had his tonsils taken out, the first thing he wanted when he woke up was a Burgerville milkshake. Little did he know that one day, as a grownup, he wouldn't just be drinking those Burgerville shakes, but creating new flavors for them, too. "Burgerville was a company I'd grown up with," says Brown, now executive chef and director of R&D for the Vancouver, WA-based chain, and the first to fill that position.
Indeed, many Oregon and Washington State residents have grown up with Burgerville, which started back in 1961 as a place that served burgers, fries, soda, and little else. Yet from the beginning, founder George Propstra tinkered continually with new menu items and was a firm champion of using fresh, local products.
The company did its best to maintain that tradition, eventually broadening its menu to a full roster of locally popular items. But as it grew, finding sources for ingredients became tougher. By 2003, with nearly 40 units whipping up thousands of signature milkshakes, it was difficult to source enough huckleberries for the seasonal shake. Yet the challenge went beyond the obvious. Local sources were essential to maintain the brand's image, but sufficient quality and quantity were just as essential—and the needed products were often seasonal and wild, to boot. That's where Brown came in.
At the time, Brown was working for a Portland, OR-based foodservice vendor involved in custom-food manufacturing for restaurants. The chain, meanwhile, needed someone who was creative but also understood sourcing, the supply chain, and manufacturing. Brown had had experience on both sides of the fence.
Yet his experience wasn't limited to manufacturing. Following a three-year American Culinary Federation apprenticeship, Brown worked at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Portland. At the tender age of 25, he was promoted to executive chef of the 356-room hotel, in charge of 20,000 sq. ft. of banquet facilities and annual food revenues of $4.5 million.
All those varied skills were needed when Brown came on board as Burgerville's executive chef in May 2003. He was asked not only to find enough local producers to satisfy the chain's appetite for ingredients, but to move the ball forward by creating new and unique menu items that would keep the chain one step ahead of its growing competitors, including those in the burgeoning fast-casual segment.
One of Brown's early mandates was to switch entirely to all-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef from sustainably raised cattle. Given the chain's volume, such a change would not be simple. "We go through 30,000 lb.of ground beef every week," says Brown, "That's a lot of cows."
But Brown found a regional cooperative of ranches that could fill the bill. The initiative, beyond sending a quality message to customers, turned out to be perfectly timed as well. With the specter of Mad Cow looming over the industry, Burgerville's organic beef got national attention—and local applause. The chain's guest counts spiked 15% the day the switch was announced, and is still up substantially, says Brown.
Meanwhile, Brown was at work in the kitchen creating more of the signature, often quirky, menu items on which the chain had staked its renown. As an alternative to traditional french fries, for example, Brown created sweet potato fries with a marshmallow brown sugar dipping sauce. A salad line that Brown created included the North West Smoked Salmon-Hazelnut Salad, using wild Coho. "You can't get a salad like that anywhere else in QSR," says the chef.
Another item customers won't find at the average national chain is also a Brown creation: the Walla Walla Onion Cheeseburger.
The chain is well known for its Walla Walla Onion Rings; it sells several hundred thousand pounds in season ($1.99 for three rings; $2.99 for five). The specialty product is handpicked and hand-packed, then in the stores hand-peeled, hand-topped and -tailed, and hand-cut in half for the jumbo-sized rings. All that hand work pegs food costs high, says Brown, who adds that, although a money maker, the onion rings are seen primarily as a "guest generator," rather than a profit center.
To offset the high food cost associated with the item, he created the new cheeseburger, which uses the centers of the onions that can't be used for rings. To keep labor costs down, the centers are not breaded and fried, but instead tossed with spices and baked. As a plus, the enticing aroma helps market the new sandwich.
Meanwhile, at the height of the low-carb craze, Brown was ready with a Protein Platter—a 1/4 lb. of ground chuck, two slices of pepper bacon, Tillamook cheddar and pepperjack cheeses, and a side garden salad, all for $4.99. For carb-conscious guests it was just the thing—yet significantly for Brown, it was also a rejiggering of items already on-hand in the restaurants. "The whole lettuce-wrapped burger idea seemed too messy," he says.
Going forward, Brown is working on a breakfast rollout slated for January. The morning daypart, Brown says, is Burgerville's biggest growth opportunity. He's also thinking about an a.m. item cross-utilizing smoked Coho salmon.
"That's also something you won't find on any other fast-food menu," Brown says.