Values menu

Can fast food be good for us and the environment?

Photo by Mark Lore

We truly are a fast-food nation.

Pass the McDonald’s on Mangrove Avenue on any given day and you’ll see a line of cars snaking their way through the long drive-thru. It’s all about convenience. Every day in the United States 28 million happy customers eat their Happy Meals without even thinking twice about the havoc it might be wreaking on their health and the environment.

People probably aren’t thinking green as they grab a greasy bag inside the stagnant, primary-colored interior of a burger joint.

But it doesn’t take a hardcore environmentalist to recognize a blatant eco no-no. A recent trip to a local Taco Bell drive-thru yielded two plasic bags— one for the condiments and another for the food. The woman working the window was confused by the policy, which she agreed was pretty wasteful.

“That’s how the district manager wants us to do it,” she shrugged.

Burgers, fries and burritos—though definitely not the healthiest things you can put into your body—don’t have to weigh heavily on your conscience. In fact, a couple of fast-food restaurants have become models for sustainable business. They’ll certainly make the concept of a value meal a little easier to digest.

Fast food as we know it was born in the 1950s, as automobiles became more affordable. Like TV dinners, they were supposed to make our lives a little bit easier. The first franchised McDonald’s opened in 1955.

Up in the drizzly Pacific Northwest, George Propstra quietly opened the first Burgerville in 1961. Five years later, Propstra’s son-in-law Tom Mears took over the operation, about the same time McDonald’s went public on the New York Stock Exchange.

For the next three decades, Mears and Burgerville valiantly fought in the “Burger Wars” but couldn’t compete with their rivals’ prices. By the mid-'90s Burgerville had 32 locations, though guest counts were down.

“My immediate thought was that we had to reverse that trend,” Mears said. “But I was confident that we could.”

The company decided to play up its strengths—fresh, locally grown produce and beef—and then stepped it up a notch.

Burgerville has become a leader in renewable energy, turning the 4,400 gallons of fry grease it produces per month into nearly 3,500 gallons of pure biodiesel, which, of course, gets pumped back into the local economy. Burgerville also uses 100 percent wind power for all of its 39 restaurants, and the uncoated paper used for wrappers and tray liners is compostable.

The result has been increased profits. But Mears is modest about the company’s do-gooder ways, admitting that Burgerville doesn’t do a whole lot of self-promotion.

“As soon as we start tooting our own horns, people will call us out: ‘You don’t do this, you don’t do that,’ “ Mears said with a laugh. “We’re a little cautious. We don’t want to come across like we’ve got a handle on everything.”

Burgerville’s menu changes with the seasonal offerings. If you want the restaurant’s popular blackberry milkshake, you’d better get there in August when they’re in season. Once summer’s gone, so are the berry shakes (winter brings hazelnut, and the pumpkin shake makes an appearance in the fall). Summer is the only time you’ll find another Burgerville favorite: Walla Walla onion rings. Sweet potato fries arrive in the fall. Fish and chips only when halibut is in season.

In fact, nearly all of its products (almost 80 percent) are grown within a 100-mile radius. And the nearly 40,000 pounds of ground beef the chain uses per week comes from a longtime local supplier—need it even be pointed out that it’s all grass-fed, with no antibiotics or steroids?

Sure, a Burgerville burger might set you back a little more than, say, one from that place with the clown ($1.39 versus 99 cents for a cheeseburger), but as Mears puts it, their customers seem to appreciate what they do for the local economy.

BURGER QUEEN AND KING<br>Erin and Rick Kusie buy produce locally for Burger Hut’s condiment bar. The couple also purchase grass-fed beef for their restaurants.

CN&R file photo

“We’re creating a value for a lot of people.”

In Chico, Burger Hut has become a bit of a legend itself. Jim and Priscilla Williams opened their first restaurant on Nord Avenue in 1978.

The Williams’ daughter Erin and her husband, Rick Kusie, have taken the formula and run with it. Burger Hut now boasts six locations, including a franchise in El Dorado Hills and one scheduled to open soon in Roseville.

The folks at Burger Hut pride themselves in using fresh produce and beef. All the fixins for the “build-it-yourself” condiment bar come from S&S Produce, and about a year ago Burger Hut started buying its meat from Country Natural Beef (the same supplier used by its northern neighbor, Burgerville).

“We pursued this in earnest because it’s the right thing to do,” Rick Kusie said recently. “It’s better for you, and it tastes better.”

Kusie said they pay about 15 percent more for Country Natural’s beef, and that Burger Hut actually had to be approved by the supplier in order to do business.

So what’s the beef with beef? Well, Americans love it—especially the ground stuff that sits on a bun with pickles, tomatoes and ketchup—but in many cases it might be one of the worst things you can put in your body.

Unlike ranching of yore, which was mostly done in grazing fields, most of the cattle in this country is raised on feed lots. One ranch, portrayed in the 2007 documentary King Corn, fattened its cattle for quick “harvest” by stuffing them with corn-based feed and keeping them immobile over the course of five months. Of course, bovine aren’t meant to eat corn, which causes acidosis, and can kill the animal unless treated with antibiotics.

Country Natural Beef grazes its cattle over the course of a year and a half, before going to a feed lot on a diet of potatoes and hay for the final 90 days before slaughter.

“We can actually identify where that calf was born,” said Jack Graves, Burgerville’s chief cultural officer.

Like every other town in America, Chico is dotted with clusters of Burger Kings, Taco Bells, Carls Jr.'s, In-N-Outs and McDonald’s. Surprisingly, even some of these behemoth fast-food chains have taken some measures to be better neighbors.

McDonald’s announced earlier this year that its 1,200 UK locations are turning their fry grease into biodiesel, and in February 2006 the company opened its first LEED-certified store in Savannah, Ga. Styrofoam packaging for the most part has been phased out (although McDonald’s still uses the material for the cups for its Sweet Tea, which has many enviros steamed).

The meat … well, not much you can do there. Mickey D’s and Burger King both import some of their beef from overseas, which, according to an Associated Press report, is a savory mix of lean beef and “low-cost fat trimmings that are a byproduct of packing plants.” Fortunately two major countries McDonald’s imports from—New Zealand and Australia—have stricter regulations than we do in the United States.

McDonald’s seems to be everywhere and once held about 90 percent stock in the popular Chipotle Mexican Grill before divesting its interest in the company in 2006.

Chipotle was started in 1993 by Steve Ells, who once attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. During the chain’s relationship with McDonald’s, it grew from about 15 restaurants to more than 500.

It was also during that time that Ells adopted the “Food With Integrity” motto. Most of the company’s meat (100 percent of the pork and chicken, and 60 percent of the beef) comes from livestock that’s naturally raised—vegetarian feed, no hormones or antibiotics. Restaurants are built using recycled products and energy-efficient equipment.

It’s paid off for Chipotle, which opened about 140 new restaurants this year.

Burger Hut might be one of the smaller chain operations, but Kusie said they’re still thinking big. The restaurant is exploring the possibility of making its own biodiesel, as well as looking into using Biograde utensils made with plant cellulose.

It may take some time, but as the business grows, so will the possibilities.

“You can’t do it all overnight,” Kusie said. “But if you keep thinking about it and keep making those changes, it’s a good direction.”