The meat is raised naturally; the packaging is recycled; the ovens use renewable power. New green fast-food chains are serving up burgers and fries to feel good about.
Mary Desmond Pinkowish| April 2008 issue
It’s really cold and windy in Manhattan. The Friday lunch crowds scurry in and out of delis and take-out places. But at one fast-food joint, the customers calmly form a line that spills out onto the sidewalk. This is Chipotle on East 44th Street, and I join the queue accompanied by two fast-food industry experts – my teenaged son and daughter.
Once inside, we decide among a burrito, fajita burrito, burrito bowl or tacos and a filling – chicken, steak, carnitas or barbacoa (spicy shredded beef). At the head of the line, we tell the lady behind the counter what we want, and she and her colleagues move the meals down the line in about a minute, letting us choose among pinto and black beans, roast chili-corn or several types of tomatillo-chili. We pay (about $8 each), then hunt for a table in the crowded dining room. It seems like a fairly typical fast-food experience, but we’re tucking into a meal that Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, says embodies a philosophy of “food with integrity.” Is he serious?
It’s no joke. We knew we were in for a different kind of fast-food experience at Chipotle from the beginning. The customers lined up outside are nice to one another, making eye contact and smiling. The women behind the counter seem older than the typical fast-food worker, and there’s something attentive and almost motherly in their manner. But once we unwrap our meals, we’re focused on one fact: This food tastes really, really good – nothing at all like the fast food we’ve tasted before.
Instead of sampling each other’s selections (as we originally intended), we greedily eat our own meals – no sharing. I’d never share any food that tasted as good as these carnitas. Fuggedaboutit. This is flavourful, succulent pork, with no hint of greasiness. The tomatillo green-chili salsa is fresh and couldn’t have been made more than an hour ago. The subtly spiced pinto beans have a warm, homemade taste, and there’s fluffy, soft rice underneath it all.
My attempts to sample my kids’ tacos and burritos are rebuffed, but they assure me this is the “best” fast food they’ve ever tasted. “It’s way more satisfying than normal fast food, says my 19-year-old son, who’s downed more than enough burgers and fries to know.
Chipotle is just one example of a new brand of green fast-food restaurant springing up across Europe and the U.S. faster than you can say, “Supersize my sprouts and tofu, please.” These establishments provide the speed and convenience we’ve come to expect from conventional fast-food joints, but they’re doing it while looking after the quality of the food and the health of the environment.
Much of the food is seasonal, family-farmed, naturally raised, hormone-free and/or organic. The meats and vegetables are sourced locally; the packaging is recyclable; the energy is renewable. In one restaurant, the tables are made from fallen trees rather than felled ones.
For decades, fast food has been seen as emblematic of just about everything that’s destroying our bodies and our planet. These fast-food restaurants are proving we can have our burgers – and feel good about them too.
The fast-food industry is blamed for promoting unhealthy food (especially to children), contributing to the obesity epidemic, facilitating a drive-thru lifestyle and contributing to the demise of family farms and ranches. There’s at least some evidence to support these claims. A recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed people who live in neighbourhoods with a high density of fast-food places are more likely to be obese than people from areas with more full-service restaurants. A 2006 report from Greenpeace fingered McDonald’s and similar corporations for the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. According to Greenpeace, the chickens that end up as McNuggets in European branches of McDonald’s are fattened on soybeans grown on illegally cleared land in the Amazon rainforest.
In Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser notes that McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of beef, potatoes and pork in the U.S. and that the “centralized purchasing decisions of the large restaurant chains and their demand for standardized products have given a handful of corporations an unprecedented degree of power over the nation’s food supply.” He blames them for “wiping out small businesses, obliterating regional differences and spreading identical stores… like a self-replicating code.”
To be fair, chains like McDonald’s and Burger King have offered salads and a grilled alternative to fried chicken for years. And the health-food cafe has been a fixture since the 1970s. So is the “new” fast food really all that new?
Well, yes. Menus in these new establishments cater to people who want healthier, tastier food – and want it fast – but who may not be keen on tofu burgers. Others want food that’s more authentic than a square hamburger. But other changes in the business, like food delivered in hybrid vehicles and composted waste, are in response to climate change and the imperative to do something about it.
“There’s no point in creating a profitable business if it contributes to climate change,” says Tim Hall, founder of POD Food in London, England, which specializes in healthed-up classic British fare and exotic Asian offerings. Then again, customers won’t come back to even the greenest restaurant if the food isn’t terrific. So, how can restaurants like POD and Chipotle satisfy consumer appetites for quick, delicious meals that are good for us and for the planet? Here are the five ingredients for a greater, greener fast-food joint.
1) KEEP IT LOCAL
In an Internet survey of more than 1,200 professional chefs conducted in October of last year by the National Restaurant Association, locally grown produce was voted No. 2 on a list of nearly 200 hot trends for 2008. Organic produce ranked third (bite-sized desserts led the list). These new fast-food places are clearly on to something.
Burgerville, a chain of 39 fast-food burger places in the U.S. Northwest, enjoys near-iconic status in the new fast-food market. Keeping it local has been the company’s policy since the beginning. The first Burgerville opened in 1961, and Tom Mears, the son-in-law of founder George Propstra, is at the helm today.
The chain is renowned for its use of local produce, especially in its berry milkshakes. “We start early in the spring with California strawberries, then a few weeks later we move to berries from Oregon, then Washington state. When the Washington strawberries go away, we switch to raspberries, then blackberries. In the winter, we make shakes from hazelnuts, which are abundant around here,” Mears says. Potatoes for Burgerville’s french fries come from eastern Washington state and Idaho.
According to Mears, the berries led to an interest in Walla Walla onions, unique to the Northwest and available for just a few months each year. The chain uses them to make its famous onion rings. But when the season is over for Walla Walla onions, patrons are out of luck – the onion rings disappear from the menu. Loyal customers know the drill, but new customers often don’t understand the seasonal nature of many of Burgerville’s menu items. “We tell them to come back at the end of June for onion rings,” says Mears, laughing.
Burgerville gets its meat from Country Natural Beef, a consortium of ranchers with 100 members located primarily in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and northern California, all of whom are committed to raising hormone-free cattle. “Our connection with Country Natural Beef came at just the right time for us, in the middle of the mad cow scare,” Mears says.
Ranchers affiliated with Country Natural adhere to principles of sustainable agriculture, own and raise their cattle from birth and don’t purchase cattle from other herds or ranches. Mears says knowing where Burgerville’s beef comes from is a big draw for many customers, who may also know the Country Natural brand from shopping at Whole Foods grocery stores.
Deb Sellers, co-owner and co-founder of Sellers Markets in San Francisco, California, renowned for its “eco-friendly, straight-from-the-earth food,” says using the same brands her customers purchase for their families is an asset to her business too. “We’re a fast-casual place that supports local artisans who practise sustainable agriculture,” Sellers says, noting that their market tables are made from trees that have fallen in San Francisco.
Cheeses used at Sellers Markets come from Cowgirl Creamery, a well-known local producer of artisan cheeses. Other purveyors include local favourites Boulangerie Bay Breads and Scharffen Berger Chocolate. Sellers Markets promotes the fact that its meat comes from Niman Ranch, which raises hormone- and antibiotic-free vegetarian cattle and pork. While Niman isn’t strictly local, with participating ranchers in several states, it does adhere to sustainable ranching methods.
2) MAKE IT GOOD
“Let the real flavour sing,” Deb Sellers says. She practises what she preaches at two Sellers Markets restaurants (a third is on the way): “This is not fine dining. It’s a simple menu done well and fast and to order. Hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches made from the best cheese, bread and ham we can get. It’s amazing how great that tastes. We keep the menu fresh and exciting by changing it.” In the winter months, free-range turkey pot pie is a big seller. Not so in summer, when other seasonal items take its place.
Really good food is the selling point at Chipotle too. Spokesman Chris Arnold says the restaurants are usually categorized as fast food because the chain now includes 700 stores and the food ends up in a bag. “But that’s where the similarity ends,” says Arnold, whose title at Chipotle is “director of hoopla, hype and ballyhoo.” Unlike Sellers, Arnold is quick to make a fine-dining connection. He explains that Ells, founder and CEO of Chipotle, attended the Culinary Institute of America and has taken his cues from fine dining. “That’s the model he understood, and that’s the model we adhere to,” says Arnold.
In 2000, after seven years in business, Ells added another layer. While working to improve the quality of his carnitas, he visited some Niman Ranch hog farms in Iowa. In mainstream hog production, animals are confined to cages or crowded pens. Most don’t even have room to turn around, and need antibiotics to stay healthy. At Niman, Ells encountered some happy anomalies: pastured, antibiotic-free animals that slept in deeply bedded barns.
After this revelation, Ells was determined to serve only naturally raised pork- “no antibiotics, no hormones and a vegetarian diet,” says Arnold. It tastes better, he says. Pigs raised outdoors develop back fat to protect them from the elements, and it gives the meat nice marbling. Not like that dry ‘other white meat’ they sell at the supermarket.”
3) MAKE IT HEALTHY
Chipotle’s tortillas’ huge – made-as-you-wait beauties – won’t help you lose weight. Neither will the major-league portions. But 100 percent of the pork served at Chipotle, along with 80 percent of the chicken and 50 percent of the beef, is raised naturally, boosting management’s claim that it serves “food with integrity”: edibles raised humanely, without antibiotics or hormones, and by sustainable means.
Burgerville makes no health claims about its burgers, but Tom Mears concedes management is considering adding the option of a smaller patty. Better Burger, which runs three restaurants and a bustling delivery business in Manhattan, already does this, offering its Classic Beef Burger in half-pound portions, as well as a more calorically correct one-third-pound portion. Both versions of the Classic Beef Burger are striking because they look handmade – an unusual find in the fast-food trade. Pret a Manger, a London-based sandwich, salad and soup chain, offers “slim” portions and sandwiches made on half- and full-size baguettes.
But good nutrition is about more than calorie control. Some people think the recent emphasis on low-calorie, low-fat food has actually made us heavier in the past 20 years or so. Maybe it’s because these foods are less satisfying and so we eat more of them, or maybe it’s because the no-guilt labelling makes it easy to justify eating more than we should.
Pret a Manger is running a campaign with the slogan “Eat with your head.” Simon Hargraves, commercial director of Pret, explains, “Basically, it means ‘Think about what you’re eating before you eat it. Understand food and you’ll eat well.'”
Pret a Manger counts on customers who appreciate that its foods are free of genetically modified ingredients. Some menu items are organic, and all are “natural and as free of additives as they can be,” says Hargraves. “Sandwiches, salads and wraps are made today and eaten today and don’t need all those additives designed to enhance and lengthen shelf life. Natural, fresh food also tastes better.”
Pret’s customers apparently agree, because the chain serves 500,000 people across Britain every day, as well as thousands more at its U.S. and Hong Kong outposts. In a visit to one of the Manhattan stores, my kids and I noticed that just a few of each type of sandwich were in the cases ready for purchase. Employees buzzed in to replenish them, but only as necessary. A few bites of a baguette sandwich confirmed it – the bread was fresh, not soaked with moisture from the cheese and tomato.
EVOS is a U.S. chain with fast-food outlets in Florida and Nevada – and without a single deep-fryer or grill. “We slow-roast our burgers with hot air and moisture,” explains co-founder Dino Lambridis. “This method is healthier and cleaner and avoids the buildup of cancer-causing heterocyclic amines, which occurs when proteins in meat hit high heat.”
French “fries” are actually air-baked at EVOS, and Lambridis says they contain 50 to 70 percent less fat than conventional fries. The New York City chain Better Burger also offers air-baked fries that are appealing even to skeptical teens raised on the McDonald’s variety. High praise indeed. At Ozone Organics, a small, all-organic fast-food company based in London, Ontario, nutrient-dense sweet potato fries are outselling conventional fries 10 to 1, according to co-founder Scott Kay.
“Our customers ask us all the time about where we get our meat,” says Patrick Terry, founder of P. Terry’s fast-burger joint in Austin, Texas. “I tell them my wife and I have actually visited the place where we order our beef – Harris Ranch in Fresno, California. We’ve seen everything there – the feedlot, slaughterhouse, the packing area. We’ve watched them sanitize their trucks. And I explain how Harris Ranch hires extra meat inspectors so that they’re able to check the meat three times more often than the USDA requires.”
Terry is also proud of the fact that none other than Eric Schlosser dined at P. Terry’s just before the world premiere of the film version of Fast Food Nation, which took place in Austin.
POD, in London’s financial district, sells foods that appeal to customers who appreciate traditional British fare. “But instead of basic hot food, our customers get something with a strong health benefit,” says founder Tim Hall. POD Food customers order items like oatmeal combined with antioxidant-rich goji berries, which are reputed to enhance sexual function. POD also offers a breakfast sandwich made of baked (not grilled or fried) bacon on brown bread with tomatoes.
Another popular green entry on the fast-food landscape, Pizza Fusion, aims at several distinct customer targets. “We thought we were going after the Whole Foods customer,” says co-founder Vaughan Lazar. But the restaurant found a following among expectant couples and parents who want to keep their young children healthy.
Seventy-five percent of the food offered by Pizza Fusion is organic. The expanding chain also offers vegan-friendly, soy-based mozzarella. “And we answered customer requests for gluten-free pizza crusts. I recently had a customer drive three-and-a-half hours for one,” says Lazar.
4) TAKE CARE OF YOUR EMPLOYEES
The restaurant industry is the largest employer in the U.S. after the federal government, according to the National Restaurant Association. A large portion of these workers is employed by fast-food restaurants. Many of the new fast-food chains pride themselves on better employee relations than those typically encountered in the conventional fast-food world.
Lazar of Pizza Fusion says he and his partners spent hours with about 100 workers at Starbucks to learn more about those famously content employees. Starbucks, where employees are called “store partners,” ranks No. 7 on Fortune magazine’s current “100 Best Places to Work” list because of programs like sponsored gym memberships, job sharing, health-care coverage (to which employees contribute), domestic partner benefits and more than 200 hours of on-the-job training each year.
Pizza Fusion took some of those lessons home. The company pays 100 percent of employees’ health-insurance premiums and offers discount gym memberships. “We all went rock climbing at an indoor gym last week. We like to do fun stuff with our workers,” says Lazar.
Deb Sellers reports that employee turnover at Sellers Markets is well below the industry average. “All of our employees are stockholders,” she says, adding that about 40 percent of the original employees hired in 2005 are still on staff. Tom Mears says some Burgerville customers tell him they’re loyal because they know the company provides an affordable health-insurance plan to employees.
Passion matters too. “A lot of these restaurants are following the example of the Apple stores,” says Jerry Newman, distinguished professor and chair of the department of organization and human resources in the School of Management at the State University of New York in Buffalo. “Apple hires people with a passion for Apple products. Prospective customers walk into the stores and see that these are believers. It provides a competitive advantage,” says Newman, who is also the author of My Secret Life on the McJob, which he wrote after covertly obtaining counter jobs at McDonald’s, Burger King and other chains.
Newman adds that many of the employees at the new fast-food places are similarly dedicated to environmental causes and organic food. He suspects many of these places select employees who are sympathetic to the green, sustainable, healthy-food cause.
Michael Oshman, executive director and founder of the Green Restaurant Association, says he recently had a call from a restaurant employee about introducing some green initiatives where she worked. At the end of the conversation, she added she’d happily jump ship to work at a greener, more environmentally friendly restaurant if the opportunity arose.
It’s not just company employees who benefit from greener initiatives at the new fast-food places. According to Chris Arnold, each time Chipotle opens a restaurant, Niman can add a family ranch to its operation. “So we help create opportunities for family farmers,” he says.
5) TAKE CARE OF THE ENVIRONMENT
Brenden Sachs and his buddies are big fans of the milkshakes at Burgerville, and he can describe the blackberry and marionberry shakes in great detail. “The shakes are fantastic because they actually contain real berries, unlike most restaurants where the shakes obviously consist of a powdered mix and some fruit syrup. And the berries are always in season, so the shakes are never tart,” he enthuses.
But Sachs says he had “no idea at all” that the chain is exceedingly green. Burgerville is at the forefront of the greening of fast food. “Portland General Electric approached us for help in pushing wind power,” says Mears. “So we pay a slight premium, about 10 percent more than a normal utility bill, to support growth of windmills in this area.”
The extra costs aren’t all passed on to customers. The Burgerville utility bill may be offset by other initiatives. By recycling cooking oil instead of paying to have it hauled away, for example, Burgerville saves money. And burgers are modestly priced here, ranging from $1.19 to $4.79, in the same ballpark as those at McDonald’s.
Most of Burgerville’s customers aren’t fully aware of the company’s environmental initiatives, which include composting and recycling at each store, converting used trans-fat-free cooking oil to biodiesel and supporting local farmers and ranchers who adhere to sustainable production methods.
In fact, the need for green is particularly acute in the fast-food sphere. The restaurant industry overall is the largest consumer of electricity in the American retail sector. Fast-food packaging accounts for an estimated 20 percent of litter in the U.S. The city of Oakland, California, forces local restaurants to help pick up the tab for litter removal. In Taipei, Taiwan, fast-food restaurants are required to recycle, and customers are asked to separate their waste into four categories: leftover food, recyclable material, regular waste and liquids. Restaurants that don’t comply face stiff cash fines.
The non-profit U.S. Green Restaurant Association, headquartered in Massachusetts, was founded to help restaurants meet the green challenge. Businesses often save money in the process. “We define for restaurants what’s green and what’s not,” says Oshman. “We maintain the nation’s largest database of environmental solutions for restaurants.”
He adds that the GRA can help restaurant owners find recycled, tree-free, biodegradable and organic products and non-toxic cleaning and chemical products. Restaurants that consistently adhere to the association’s 11-point plan become certified green restaurants .
The GRA also endorses products offered for sale to restaurants. “A manufacturer came to us with a compostable packaging product made from renewable resources. But we pointed out it was still made from virgin products. They called back a few days later saying they had changed the manufacturing process to include recycled products so they could get the endorsement,” Oshman explains.
Pizza Fusion happily promotes its green efforts. The chain’s motto is “Saving the Planet One Pizza at a Time.” Restaurants are insulated with recycled blue jeans. Pizza deliveries are made in hybrid vehicles. Customers get discounts for returning pizza boxes for recycling. Other food containers are made from cornstarch and are compostable. A “smart” system kills lights when a restroom is vacant, and the restaurant’s power consumption is offset by purchasing renewable energy certificates.
“Each day we learn more and more ways to be sustainable, and we implement them as we go along,” says Lazar, adding it’s almost a daily contest at the office. “Sometimes we forget to tell people that the pizza is great,” he says with a grin. A medium pie at Pizza Fusion runs about $13, a dollar or two more than at a conventional un-green pizzeria in the New York area.
All of these businesses have expansion plans. Some, like Burgerville, aren’t ambitious beyond their areas, while others, like Pizza Fusion and Pret a Manger, are more aggressive. All are counting on increased demand for what they offer and growing public appreciation for their environmental and health ethics. But even if the corporate heart is in the right place, the most loyal customers will drift away unless, in the words of Deb Sellers, “the real flavour sings.”
And the big chains are taking notice. McDonald’s has engaged healthy living guru Dean Ornish as one of its featured “wellness experts,” and asks poultry suppliers to knock off using antibiotics to promote growth in chickens. The chain recycles and purchases products made from recycled material, and its energy conservation efforts won a USA 2007 Energy Star Partner of the Year award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Burger King gives customers opportunities to – stay calorie conscious -with items like the Whopper Jr. sandwich and the Tendergrill Chicken Garden salad (which would account for one-third of your daily fat intake – so it’s good to be conscious of that). BK also offers “regional favourites” like the Texas Triple Whopper and bagel and sourdough breakfast sandwiches.
Taco Bell now operates a trans-fat-free environment. Its management is even concerned about the book value of your car. Noting that a clean interior can add thousands to resale value, and that 60 percent of Americans eat in their cars, it has designed car-friendly products like the Crunchwrap Supreme, which won QSR Magazine’s “Best Meal for on the Move.” Whether that’s a sign of progress is debatable.
When my kids and I depart Chipotle at about 2, after the Manhattan lunch crush, the line outside is slightly longer than when we entered. The ultimate tribute comes from my 14-year-old daughter, who insists she can’t wait to come back next week “with just my friends.” And my son laments that there’s no Chipotle in the upstate New York town where he attends college. That means the food must be good; these guys are the experts.
I’m the mom though. I still get the last word. But if this is the kind of fast food they decide to opt for, I’d feel pretty good about that.
Mary Desmond Pinkowish is a health writer with a fast-food fetish.