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In their own words: Tom Mears

President and CEO: The Holland, Inc., parent of Burgerville, Noodlin’, and Beaches

Back story: Mears, 64, joined Burgerville in 1966 as a unit manager. The chain had been founded by his father-in-law, George Propstra, in 1961. He held a variety of supervisory and management positions with The Holland, and was named CEO in 1982. The Holland is comprised of 39 Burgerville restaurants in Washington and Oregon, along with a Noodlin’ (a noodles-from-around-the-world concept) and Beaches (a casual-dining restaurant). The company has won acclaim for its commitment to local food sourcing. 

When I first started out, the Burgerville menu was very simple: a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a double burger and fries, shakes and soft drinks. It was all walk up—there was no such thing as inside dining or drive-through. You could get a hamburger, fries and soft drink for 50 cents. The Burgerville I was hired to run was new. We worked seven days a week to get our crew trained. The only saving grace for me was that my wife, Kathy, had grown up in the business, so she provided a lot of understanding and support.

The company is still described as family owned, but I guess I’m basically the family—my wife and our two children aren’t involved. The challenge for me is to create a feeling of ownership throughout the company, for everyone to run the business like they own it.

I don’t golf. I played when I was young and I hated it. It’s just a good way to ruin a nice walk on a beautiful piece of land. But I did enjoy watching Tiger Woods win the British Open this year.

We’ll expand in years to come, after my time—the possibilities for Burgerville are pretty unlimited, but if we’re going to grow like that we may have to change our business model. Our natural growth will be out from our base, into markets like Seattle and eastern Washington. For the next couple of years we need to focus on keeping our base strong—some of our restaurants are pretty old and need to be improved.

We ask every employee to create a development plan for themselves. It doesn’t matter if you’re here for the summer or for a career—we want you to have a plan about where you want to go and what you want to do here.

We decided a long time ago that we couldn’t play the same game as the big players, and that we had to figure out what we could offer that they couldn’t. It became obvious that we could buy locally and help the community sustain itself. We get all of our dairy and seasonal produce locally. We get our coffee locally from Kobos Coffee Company, which buys from a consortium of women growers in Central America. Once a year we meet with Country Natural Beef, a consortium of ranchers in Central Oregon, and agree on a price for hamburger.

We switched to wind-generated electricity for all of our restaurants around the first of the year. We’re paying a slight premium, but it’s not unmanageable—initially it’s about a 10 percent premium. Our projections show that we’ll break even within a couple years, and beyond that the switch will actually save us money.

An interesting sidelight to this is that my family has a place down on the Washington coast, and our neighbor there owns a motel that borders on our property. He approached me about building a windmill on our property that would generate electricity to power the motel. I said yes, so he’s going ahead with the project. It’ll be a scaled down windmill, not one of the big turbines you normally see.

We’re having the best year in our history. It’s a combination of our sensitivity to the environment, our sustainable business model, how we train employees—it’s all starting to come together.

There’s absolutely nothing I dislike about this business. It's the variety that makes it so much fun. I get excited about even the mundane things like cleaning a restroom or picking up a parking lot.

My favorite thing on the menu is usually the Tillamook Cheeseburger, which uses locally made cheddar cheese. Lately, though, I’m eating a lot of grilled chicken salads, since I’m trying to drop 30 pounds. I’m a pound away and feeling good about it. I’m really looking forward to having some of our Walla Walla onion rings.

My idea of an ideal dining experience? It doesn't matter what kind of restaurant, I just need to know that I am being served with love.

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