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Making sustainable work

How four chains built some of the nation's most innovative sustainable menu items from the ground up.

What does sustainability look like when you put it on a plate? A sustainable menu item sounds like a great idea, until you try to execute it. Not only must it taste great, but it needs steady sourcing and creative marketing, all at price points guests can afford.

Despite these hurdles, a growing number of small chains are cracking the code of sustainable menu development. They’re cooking up dishes that are good for the earth and good for their bottom lines. Here’s what they’re learning:

  • Diners want taste first and sustainability second.
  • Natural and organic meats and produce are easier to supply today than just a few years ago.
  • Name-brand recognition drives sustainable sales as well as conventional ones.
  • Sustainable dishes can turn profits at quickservice and fast-casual prices.
  • People come for the food, but they also care about green activities like renewable energy, conservation and recycling.

To see how these lessons work in practice, we followed four sustainable menu items from the drawing board to the tabletop.

Pepper Bacon Cheeseburger, $4.69
Restaurant  Burgerville, Vancouver, Washington, 39 units

Burgerville’s signature sandwich didn’t start out to be earth-friendly. When first developed by an in-house chef in the mid-1990s, it used conventional beef. The chain’s watchwords then were “fresh” and “local.”

A commercial showed a competitor’s frozen hamburger patty being slapped against the side of a truck. Eight years ago, the chain added a third word to its motto: “sustainable.” It changed the beef in all its burgers to antibiotic- and hormone-free. It estimates that 70 percent of its menu items are now sourced in Oregon, Washington or Idaho.

In 1997, Burgerville was approached by a co-op of Oregon ranchers, who were raising grass-fed, chemical-free beef. They couldn’t supply the volumes that Burgerville needed. But the chain lent a helping hand. It sat in on board meetings and helped recruit more ranchers, until it could make Country Natural Beef its sole supplier.

Sustainability moves forward one ingredient at a time. This February, Burgerville switched its bacon supplier to Daily’s Premium Meats of Missoula, Montana. The meat is humanely raised and free of antibiotic residue. It’s processed by Fulton Provision Company, certified as sustainable by the nonprofit Food Alliance.

The cheddar cheese is also free of hormones and antibiotics. It comes from Tillamook Creamery, a 100-year-old Oregon dairy co-op. The buns are not organic, but are baked locally, by Franz Family Bakeries of Portland, Oregon.

Burgerville relies mostly on in-store promotions and word-of-mouth. Several months before Country Natural Beef hit its grills, the chain started touting the new product through posters and brochures.

“Our biggest component is talking with guests,” says CEO Jeff Harvey. “We’ve found that they do get curious and want to engage us in quite a bit of detail on why we made our choices. For some time, we had a storyteller on staff, who taught our people how to tell stories about where our products came from.”

Burgerville’s story of sustainability goes beyond the bun. The chain talks up initiatives in wind power, recycling, composting and turning used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel.

Free-Range BBQ Chicken Salad, $9.20 for a 64-oz. container
Restaurant  Sellers Markets, San Francisco, 3 units

Back in 2001, says co-owner Debra Sellers, “we asked the question, ‘Is it possible to combine local, sustainable, artisan food with the burgeoning fast-casual industry, at a value price?’”

Sellers and husband, Jim, were both fans of Southern-style barbecue, which is scarce in San Francisco. Jim collaborated with a former chef for Wolfgang Puck to create a California spin on the concept. The birds are stuffed with rosemary, thyme and garlic for the rotisserie. Instead of slathering the meat with mayo, Sellers mixes pulled chicken and BBQ sauce with sweet shucked corn, red onions, roma tomatoes and hearts of romaine, topped with a house ranch dressing and corn tortilla crisps.

Every inch of the chicken gets used. The wings are served at happy hour, while the drippings go into soups.

Every morning, a truckload of 3.5-pound chickens comes over the Golden Gate from Petaluma Poultry, which has raised free-range poultry since 1986. The birds are fed an all-vegetarian diet with no antibiotics. The plant recycles everything from packing boxes to egg crates. It ships chicken manure to rice farmers, in exchange for rice hulls to carpet its chicken coops.

The bulk of vegetables and herbs comes through San Francisco Specialty Produce, a distributor for local farms. Most are sustainably grown but not certified organic. Sellers says 90 percent of her menu is sustainable.

The menu itself is the most important marketing tool. “Most of the time, we put the name of the company we use on our menu and in our e-newsletter,” says Sellers. “Many of these are name brands that people can recognize from the grocery store or farmer’s markets.” Purveyors are also featured on 12-foot galvanized steel boards, as well as in brochures.

The Alaskan flatbread sandwich, $7.69
Restaurant  O’Naturals, Portland, Maine, 5 units

The chain was the brainchild of Gary Hirschberg, who built Stonyfield Farm into a national brand for organic milk and yogurt. He recruited natural-foods consultant Mac McCabe to create a natural quickservice concept. “We felt the heavy natural and organic grocery user needs quick alternatives outside the house,” says McCabe. “How do you feed the kids between violin lessons and soccer practice?”

In 500 hours of customer interviews, he discovered his demographic didn’t care about burgers. They wanted a menu of sandwiches, soups, salads and Asian noodles.

McCabe took a year to develop an organic flatbread, with a baker from a Tibetan Buddhist community in Vermont. Next, he needed a variety of proteins to put between the slabs. One was salmon, which customer surveys rated the most popular seafood. He chose wild instead of farmed fish.

At the first store, when patrons custom-built their sandwiches from an array of ingredients, two popular salmon toppings were brie cheese and root vegetables. McCabe scrapped the build-your-own system, which slowed service, but kept the toppings. The root vegetables vary by season.

O’Naturals gets its salmon from EcoFish of Dover, New Hampshire, which supplies restaurants with 13 species of seafood. Its wild Alaskan salmon spawn in unpolluted rivers and are managed to prevent overfishing.

The bread is baked from organic unbleached and unbromated flour, ground by Champlain Valley Milling of Westport, New York. The only other ingredients are honey, sea salt, olive oil and yeast.

Low-key. The Alaskan is listed on menu boards as one of eight specialty sandwiches. A flag lists the ingredients, while the wall displays a photo of EcoFish’s owners—holding up a fish.

Organic Pepperoni Pizza, $12 for 14-inch pie
Restaurant  Pizza Fusion, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 20 units

"Putting pepperoni on our menu was a no-brainer,” says R&D and procurement director Ashley Rathgeber. But organic pepperoni was just the finishing touch. The chain created a pie that’s sustainable down to the dough, including the cheese, tomatoes and sauce.

The original recipe was not market-tested before launch. It got overhauled last year by menu consultants The Culinary Edge of San Francisco. They reformulated the dough, to create a better consistency, and cut back on spices.

At first, the chain used 17 distributors and bought from Whole Foods Markets. Just three years later, Rathgeber has whittled her suppliers to four. That consolidation has cut food costs—a 14-inch pizza dropped from $16 down to $12.

Several firms produce Pizza Fusion’s proprietary ingredients. Burke Corp. of Nevada, Iowa, got itself certified organic

to make the pepperoni, now up to 800 pounds a week. The dough’s organic flour comes from Bay State Milling of Quincy, Massachusetts. In Modesto, California, Escalon Premier Brands blends organic tomato puree and paste for sauce. 

The mozzarella comes from Grande Cheese in Brownsville, Wisconsin. Its farmers use such sustainable practices as heating with manure and soothing cows with classical music.

In the beginning, the pizza’s marketing focused on its organic ingredients. Lazar quickly realized that even tree-huggers cared more about taste. “We had to shift our focus from saying, ‘We’re green and organic,’ to saying, ‘This is the best pizza you ever had, and it just happens to be organic and good for you, free of hormones and pesticides.’”

But sustainability still sells. The chain erects green buildings, buys wind energy credits to offset its electricity use and delivers in a fleet of hybrid gas-electric vehicles.      

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