Ask 10 people what their definition of “sustainable food” is and you’re likely to receive 10 different answers. Like natural, the word sustainable means something different to everyone.

That’s really no different in the quick-serve and fast-casual restaurant industries, where operators are blazing their own trails when it comes to sustainability on the menu. But for most of these brands, it comes back to one core principle: creating menus with ingredients that are less harmful to the planet.

Elevation Burger, which started in 2005 and now has around 30 restaurants in eight states and Washington, D.C., stakes its claim to sustainability with its meat. The Falls Church, Virginia–based chain sources exclusively grass-fed organic beef and organic free-range chicken. This is important, says Michael Berger, founder and vice president of the supply chain, because those two items make up close to 60 percent of the brand’s sales.

“We firmly believe in this,” he says. “It was part of our mantra from day one.”

What’s changed since that first day is simply the sourcing strategy. With one unit, the founders contracted to buy beef from a nearby farmer whose practices they respected. The concept then grew, adding locations and farms near them, until it made sense to aggregate sourcing and get better pricing; today it buys from almost 100 different farms, but still feels good about each farm partnership.

Of course, buying premium beef and chicken from small farmers costs more than buying through a wholesaler. Elevation Burger passes these costs on, but Berger says they’re minimal—50 cents to $1 more per entrée—and besides, customers are on board with them. “There’s an expectation of a premium if you’re buying something organic,” he says. “Consumers would distrust we’re doing what we say if our prices weren’t slightly higher.”

Finding the right franchisees for Elevation Burger has been important, because it can take longer to turn a profit with this operating model. “We have eaten some margin as a result of doing this,” Berger says, “but it’s important and it helps us stand out.”

Vital Root in Denver has kept up its sustainable menu in a slightly different way than Elevation Burger. Justin Cucci, the founder of this single-unit vegetarian fast casual, also has four full-service restaurants to his name. It’s because of the other restaurants in his Edible Beats restaurant group that Vital Root has become a success; it didn’t break even until 18 months after it opened in the spring of 2016.

“The other restaurants have been able to support us when we were losing money,” Cucci says. “We’re a fast-food restaurant, so it’s really hard to incorporate sustainability, and we’ve done it at the expense of profitability. Right now, I think having local, sustainable, and organic food trumps profitability, and we want this concept to walk the walk.”

At Vital Root, between 80 and 85 percent of the food is sustainable, and for Cucci, sustainability largely means avoiding animal proteins. To that end, 98 percent of the menu is vegan. But it’s also mostly local, organic, and GMO-free. The good thing about those labels, Cucci says, is they are definable, “but it’s hard to define ‘sustainable.’”

Ryland Eckhart is the cofounder of Kiss The Ground, a Venice, California–based organization that works to educate consumers about regenerative agriculture and helps set up farming systems that get healthier, rather than depleted, over time. He says opting for foods with recognizable labels like non-GMO is a big step toward being sustainable.

“Because most of our food system is so disconnected, we have to rely on things like the non-GMO and organic labels that show some care went into the growth or production of that product,” Eckhart says. He suggests restaurant operators “meet the famers, shake their hands, understand their values and their commitment. That’s the best way to understand sustainability.”

That’s practiced at Vital Root; Cucci or his staff visit every farm they deal with. “We taste the product and become educated on the impact of the foods. Then we look at whether we can get the product at the volume we need, and then of course the price,” he says. 

Cucci tries to look at the big picture. He says it’s about finding food grown with integrity, whether that’s how the ingredients are cultivated or how the source partners treat their employees. He also tries to steer clear of ingredients that require a lot of water to grow or process. “Water is a resource, and Americans don’t treat it that way; we treat it like a commodity,” he says.

Of course, it’s tough for 100 percent of a menu’s ingredients to be sustainable. For example, Vital Root serves many dishes with mung bean noodles, which are not grown in the U.S. Cucci says the company imports the noodles because the alternative, white rice noodles, are empty calories; importing ingredients, though, inevitably leads to a higher carbon footprint. Vital Root also imports coconut milk from Thailand.

However, most of Vital Root’s produce comes from local farmers, and almost all is thanks to relationships Cucci’s had in place for many years through his other restaurants. He also operates three gardens in Denver. They don’t provide a lot of food for the restaurant, he says, but “it’s another piece of the puzzle for employees to be excited about. It’s about the small picture of food and eating and resource. It’s also showing we’re trying to make a statement about doing it ourselves.”

Pricing remains the single biggest challenge for Cucci. He estimates that sustainable foods are 10–20 percent higher than their non-sustainable counterparts, but his price points need to be close to those found in the fast-casual industry. The trick is finding the balance where he can at least break even.

“We are trying to find the magic number where we can make more but the guest doesn’t feel cheated,” he says, adding that the average check, with a beverage, is $15–$20 but higher if a customer orders alcohol.

Ben Friedman and Brad Gillis approach sustainability on the menu from a different vantage point than Elevation Burger and Vital Root. The cofounders of Homegrown Sustainable Sandwiches started the business “not to have a restaurant, but to do something to help the environment,” Gillis says. Homegrown launched in Seattle in 2009, and now has 10 locations there, as well as three in the Bay Area.

The sandwich fast casual is a holistically sustainable company. “It’s about the health of the planet and our customers’ health. It’s hard to separate them,” Gillis says. “We aspire to source from farms employing fair labor practices and require fair-trade certification for any product sourced internationally. We make an effort to support farms growing food with sustainable practices like no-till farming methods and drip irrigation.”

Almost 100 percent of products served at Homegrown are sustainable, which is partly due to the concept having a dedicated director of supply chain and sustainability. “We try to run every ingredient through a filter—local, organic, sustainable—and we want each item on our menu to make the least impact on the world,” Gillis says.

To aid with supply, Homegrown has a dedicated farm near each city in which it operates. Up to 10 percent of the restaurants’ produce comes from these gardens in peak months.

But the concept’s growth has also brought challenges. “It’s now harder in a way because we need so much volume to meet the needs of all the restaurants,” Gillis says. “So it’s about finding partners who can grow with us and are willing to put that trust in us. We’re in a funny area where we’re too big to have niche suppliers, but it’s a huge step up to have big contracts.”

When the concept expanded to California in January 2017, it had to find new suppliers to remain local. Much of the produce was already coming from that state, so a lot of those contracts stayed intact. “But we had to find new vendors for dairy and bread and other things,” Gillis says. “You have to start all over again in a way.”

There are benefits that come with scaling a sustainable business like Homegrown. Gillis says it encourages vendors to trust the company’s business. “We go to a vendor and can be very specific on what we need and how it will help them service us,” he says. “And we’ve now got numbers behind us and we have projections. That’s the benefit of having some history.”

With more brands pushing toward sustainable menus, operators like Berger, Cucci, and Gillis hope the movement will grow and become more affordable—both for them and for everyday consumers.

“To me, this is the most underserved area of the restaurant industry—food that is beyond healthy, both for us and for the planet,” Cucci says. “I’m proud we can bring this food to a [quick-service environment]. We get to use our buying power in meaningful ways, and our guest gets to have well-sourced, well-intentioned food.”

What’s Sustainable?

Some definitions on terms that fall under the “sustainable” umbrella.

Organic / Organic foods are better for the planet since they are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides, which leach toxic chemicals into the soil, streams, and foods we eat.

Local / Buying local means buying products that travel only a short distance to your door, so less gas is used and less carbon emitted into the air.

GMO-Free / Science shows herbicide and pesticide use is significantly increased when growing genetically modified products.

Vegetarian/Vegan / The Environmental Working Group reports that the production, processing, and distribution of meat takes a huge toll on the environment—producing up to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as vegetables and grains.

Story, Sustainability, Elevation Burger, Homegrown, Kiss The Ground, Vital Root