Sustainability | September 2013 | By Barney Wolf

For Future’s Sake

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More fast food brands, including Moe's, are using sustainable proteins on menus.
Moe’s Southwest Grill uses grass-fed, no-hormone beef for its steak and has been transitioning to an all-natural product over the past year. Moe’ Southwest Grill / Susan Fleck Photography
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Free-range turkey is not always easy to procure, either. Epic Burger’s Friedman, for one, says he has been unable to find a reliable all-natural turkey supply.

Burger Lounge, on the other hand, has taken advantage of a large Southern California farm for the free-range birds in the chain’s turkey burgers, which are “a large seller,” Loring says.

Chipotle has been a leader in moving limited-service restaurants toward more natural and sustainable proteins. It began in the late 1990s, when founder Steve Ells was looking for methods to improve the taste of the chain’s carnitas. He was horrified by the crowded pig feeding operations and decided to begin sourcing from natural pork producers, says Chris Arnold, spokesman for Chipotle. Now “all of our meat is naturally raised in a humane way, without antibiotics or hormones,” he says.

Some operators procure pork from producers who raise their livestock in pastures. At Sloco in Nashville, most of the meat comes from farms less than 200 miles away.

“We are completely focused on sustainable food and making sustainable food, particularly proteins, more affordable,” says Sloco owner Jeremy Chase Barlow. The restaurant uses entire pigs for its sandwiches, including ham, bacon, pork loin, and pulled pork, plus corned pork shoulders in the Redneck Reuben ($7.25).

The American pork industry is intent on improving sustainability and has made considerable strides toward that goal, says Allan Stokes, director of environmental programs for the National Pork Board. The industry recently conducted a 50-year retrospective and has managed to “lower its land footprint by 56 percent, based on pounds of pork produced,” he says. “It’s 41 percent lower for water, and the carbon footprint has been reduced by 56 percent.”

While beef, chicken, and pork are the proteins used most in limited-service restaurants, some concepts are introducing less-used proteins. Yeah! Burger has bison as a regular burger, and specials like organic lamb, salmon burgers, and shrimp po’ boys. Burger Lounge has a “Game Changer” series of limited-time offers, including bison, boar, elk, and lamb.

Lamb is a good sustainable protein option because it’s all pasture- or forage-based, says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. “With more consumers wanting a grass-fed product, we see lamb as a growing segment,” she says.

Craig Rogers raises several thousand lambs at his farm near Patrick Springs, Virginia, and supplies a number of restaurants around the eastern half of the country, including some limited-service brands.

“We also make an all-lamb gyro loaf,” he says. “Most of the gyro meat in the U.S. is made with a combination of lamb and beef to make it cheaper, but ours uses only lamb.”

Among the restaurants he supplies is the Richmond, Virginia, unit of Alabama-based Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, which has 26 locations in nine states. The chain uses lamb in two gyros ($9.39 with a side), and it’s also grilled as part of a combination meal ($11.99). The prices are $1 higher at the Richmond unit, and there’s no plan to expand that lamb product to the chain’s other units.

“The lamb is incredible,” says Keith Richards, Taziki’s founder, of Rogers’ product. “But a lot of it for us is the bottom line, the cost. With this type of lamb, it can get expensive.”

Sustainability is also a major consideration when sourcing seafood. Industrial fishing practices have caused concern about the viability of some species.

For its Filet-O-Fish sandwich, McDonald’s sources all of its fish supply from Marine Stewardship Council (msc)–certified fisheries, says Jon Rump, a spokesman for the company.

“Many fisheries contribute to our supply, but each is MSC certified,” he says in an e-mail. McDonald’s has pointed to the Filet-O-Fish as the product in which the company has made the greatest strides toward assuring the sustainability of its supply.

Sustainability is important when it comes to the fish used at Fusian, a four-unit fast-casual sushi chain based in Cincinnati.

“It starts out with our suppliers and making sure we know and trust them,” says Stephan Harman, cofounder of the brand. “We try to learn the story of our food and communicate that to our guests. We are trying to do the right thing.”

Tuna is the most popular protein for Fusian’s sushi, and the company works with a Japanese supplier who obtains the fish only from longline fishing sources, which is considered a more sustainable method than using nets.

Of course, some of the most sustainable proteins don’t have meat. One of those is tofu, which is served at numerous limited-service restaurants, including Moe’s and Chipotle. Hummus, made of mashed chickpeas, is also growing in popularity.

Yeah! Burger has a vegetarian burger made primarily from organic red peas from South Carolina, while Burger Lounge features an organic quinoa veggie burger and Sloco offers a quinoa meatball sub, veggie sandwich with a tofu spread, and seitan.

The seitan, or wheat gluten, is “made into a loaf, braised, and then shaved,” Barlow says.

At Epic Burger, which has a portobello mushroom burger, there’s an effort to create Mushroom Monday, based on the Meatless Monday movement.

“I know it sounds contradictory, but this would help sustain cattle ranching for a longer period of time and reduce our carbon footprint,” Friedman says. “It’s probably our biggest contribution to sustainability.”

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