Sustainability | September 2013 | By Barney Wolf

For Future’s Sake

Operators seek sustainable proteins with future supply in mind.

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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Sustainable practices are all the rage across the restaurant industry these days.

The expansive show floors at the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show in May confirmed that the momentum behind these initiatives isn’t waning. From tableware and takeout containers to faucets, lighting, and cleaning products, green was the word. That also extends to the proteins most quick-service and fast-casual restaurants use as their menuboard centerpieces.

The concept of creating and maintaining a sustainable food supply has been embraced in varying degrees by a growing number of restaurant operations, ranging from Atlanta’s two-unit Yeah! Burger to giant, worldwide chains like McDonald’s.

“Sustainability is everything to us,” says Erik Maier, chief executive and founder of Yeah! Burger. “I started the company because I wanted there to be more sustainable options for people. Our message has resonated.”

Defining sustainability can be challenging. Most believe it refers to the practices that meet resource needs without harming the ability to meet future demands. But determining how to accomplish that requires more study.

Take the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), consisting of major agricultural, environmental, and restaurant experts, as well as other stakeholders. It was formed a few years ago to foster a sustained beef supply as the world’s population
continues to grow.

One of the organization’s goals this year is to define the term sustainability.

“That’s a big question,” says Ruaraidh Petre, the Netherlands-based executive director of the GRSB. “We don’t claim to have all the answers. Anyone you ask about sustainability in the beef industry will have a different opinion.”

There are many pillars that contribute to sustainability, including people, communities, animal welfare, social welfare, the environment, innovation, and food safety and supply. The GRSB won’t take a position on some issues, like grass versus grain cattle feed, because both are represented in the organization. “There is room for improvement in every system,” Petre says.

One Roundtable member, McDonald’s, is “an enthusiastic supporter of the GRSB and their multi-stakeholder, science-based, holistic approach,” says Bob Langert, the company’s vice president of corporate sustainability, in a statement.

McDonald’s has in recent years pushed its beef providers toward more sustainable actions, both in animal welfare and environmental management practices.

Yeah! Burger and some additional newer burger chains have focused on sustainability since they opened their doors.

“We wanted our signature product to be as sustainable as possible,” Maier says. “That’s why we went out and found a local supplier (White Oak Pastures), who is hands down one of the most humane farms in the country, and it’s three-and-a-half hours south of Atlanta.”

Atlanta is also the home of Farm Burger, which has four units in Georgia and North Carolina. Its beef is from the chain’s own cooperative of small, grass-fed, grass-finished cattle producers.

“It can be tricky managing it,” owner George Frangos says. “We’ve had to grow our co-op as we’ve grown, because there’s no other constant supply of what we want,” which is cattle that is never fed antibiotics, hormones, or grain.

Grass-fed beef’s taste led Dean Loring to choose that ingredient for his Southern California restaurant chain, Burger Lounge.

“I’m an S.O.B.—son of a butcher—and what I really like about grass-fed beef even more than its sustainability and healthfulness is the flavor,” he says. “This is what beef tasted like before the agri-corn industry began fattening cattle with things foreign to their diets.”

Chicago’s Epic Burger, meanwhile, has opted for grain-fed beef, but only from cattle that are humanely raised without hormones or antibiotics.

“No cooped-up cows on drugs,” says the chain’s founder, David Friedman. “We want to make sure the animals live a happy, healthy life. The food tastes better, and there’s better karma all around.”

The higher cost to raise these types of cattle pushes up burger prices by about $1 per item at these restaurants.

It’s not just burger places that use grass-fed, no-hormone beef. Moe’s Southwest Grill also uses the product for its steak and has been transitioning to an all-natural product over the past year.

“We want to focus on our food mission: no tran sfats, no microwaves in any stores, no products containing MSG, and we definitely don’t want to add hormones to our proteins,” says Carmisha McKenzie, the Atlanta-based chain’s R&D culinary manager. Grass-fed beef “definitely allows the cattle to grow in a more natural environment.”

Beef has long been the key protein for quick serves, and that continues today, as three of the top five U.S. operators primarily serve burgers. But per-capita consumption of beef has declined and chicken has taken over the top spot among consumers.

Many restaurant operators no longer use meat or eggs from chickens confined in tight cages, and federal rules ban hormone use in raising any fowl. But more humane treatment doesn’t necessarily correspond with sustainability. Free-range chickens, which must have access to the outdoors, are more sustainable if they can be in pastures with a more natural life cycle. Even better, some experts say, are chickens raised on grass pastures most of their lives.

“A pastured model is often part of a larger grazing system a farmer may have,” says Mike Badger, director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association.

This model uses a managed rotational system like “day ranging,” with a large shelter that is moved every few days, giving chickens access to different areas of a pasture. The birds feed on grass, weeds, bugs, and some grains and leave naturally fertilizing manure.

Among the restaurants that use day-ranged chicken are Rick Bayless’s collection of restaurants in Chicago, including the fast casuals Xoco and Frontera Grill.

A number of restaurants, like Farm Burger, don’t use pastured poultry but still opt for chicken raised humanely and without antibiotics or growth additives. “Pastured poultry really can’t supply enough, and the cost jump is really high,” Frangos says. “We feel good where we are.”

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.”