Chain Profile: Burgerville

As more businesses go “green,” Burgerville is a leader among chain restaurants, supporting local farmers and ranchers, buying wind-powered energy, and sending its used frying oil to refineries for conversion to biodiesel.

As hybrid cars become the new cool thing, and saving energy a priority, words like “sustainable” and “green” have gained new meaning in our modern vocabulary. Many companies across the country are adopting environmentally friendly practices. Take, for example, Burgerville, the Vancouver, Wash.-based burger chain known for supporting local farmers and cattle ranches. The chain is also committed to using wind-power as a source for energy in its stores, and sends its frying oil off to be recycled into biodiesel fuel.

Burgerville's first store opened in 1961 in Vancouver, Wash. Back then, it was your typical West Coast burger shack with walk-up-only service and a simple menu of burgers, fries and soft drinks. Nowadays, the chain's parent company, The Holland Inc., operates 39 Burgerville restaurants throughout Oregon and Washington featuring staffed dining areas, drive-thru service, and its signature menu that uses many all-natural, local ingredients.

“We just love you,” the chain's web site says to its customers. “No bones about it, you're the best.”

Current company president Tom Mears created Burgerville's mission, “Serve with love.” And Burgerville does. Not only does the chain make a point of providing friendly, quality service, says Jack Graves, Burgerville's chief cultural officer, but it also aims to support the community by buying local products. In addition, the company partners with organizations for charitable programs and events throughout Oregon and Washington.

“We want to help the guy next door,” Graves says. “Part of our value as a company is to give back to the community, and that means doing business locally wherever possible.”

The “serve with love” mission doesn't just apply to Burgerville's customers. It applies to the chain's employees as well — they have a great healthcare plan, according to Graves. Effective Jan. 1, all Burgerville restaurant employees within six months of service and working 20 hours a week are eligible for medical and dental coverage at a cost of $15 a month. The Holland Inc. pays 95 percent of the premium for individual employees as well as 90 percent of the cost for their dependents. Graves says this year is the best the company's ever had in terms of morale, possibly due to the new benefits plan. “When people feel good about themselves, they're more motivated and stay longer,” he says.

In addition, company executives undergo regular management training to come up with new strategies and stay focused on goals. “We're constantly changing what we do,” Graves says. “We sort of ascribe by the idea that if it ain't broke, break it.”

Burgerville's Players

Founder: George Propstra

President and CEO: Tom Mears

COO: Jeff Harvey

Chief Cultural Officer: Jack Graves

Director of Operations: Danise Combs

Vice President of Marketing: Tara Wefers

Equipment Dealer: Bargreen-Ellingson

Burgerville's menu differs from most chains through its use of local, seasonal ingredients since its inception. In 1992, the chain rolled out a menu to showcase this, offering fresh strawberry shortcake and shakes to mark the coming of spring. In the summer, fresh berries like blackberries and raspberries from Oregon are used for shakes and smoothies, made with fresh dairy from local farmers. Also in the summertime, roughly 250,000 pounds a year of Walla Walla onions are ordered in from their namesake town in Washington state to make Burgerville's popular, enormous size onion rings. Wild coho salmon couples with Oregon hazelnuts for a healthy salad. In the wintertime, the hazelnuts mix into chocolate shakes. Year round, Tillamook cheddar cheese from nearby Tillamook, Ore., tops burgers made from fresh, not frozen, beef from Country Natural Beef, a co-op network of 75 ranches throughout the Pacific Northwest. Country Natural's ranches are certified producers of all-natural beef based on their “sustainable practices,” meaning cattle are raised with a vegetarian diet, no antibiotics or hormones, and live the high life — roaming fields with fresh grass and drinking clean water. In addition to Burgerville, green friendly powerhouse, Whole Foods Market, is a big buyer of the beef, says Graves.

At the newly remodeled store in Salmon Creek, Wash., customers get typical fast-casual service and more in the form of attendants who float around the dining area checking on guests' needs. That may mean grabbing extra napkins or wet towels for the onion rings and refilling drinks in addition to making sure patrons receive their orders in a timely and complete fashion.

“We want our newest design to head in the direction of a fast-casual chain like Red Robin,” Graves says.   For that reason, management no longer considers burger giants like McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's as its competition. The design of Burgerville's stores has moved away from the fast-food norm by offering more service, and a more upscale décor, says Graves. Still, drive-thru remains an important feature for Burgerville, he says. Originally built in 1979, the Salmon Creek restaurant was torn down and completely rebuilt with a whole new look before reopening in February. The 3,650-square-foot store employs 77 people, and features a 100-seat dining room with exposed wood beams, and a slate tile floor.

The location also has a 20-person “sun room” with floor to ceiling glass walls and banquettes with A/C adapters for laptops and WI-FI access where people often linger to read, work or study. Many community organizations hold meetings in the room as well. Outside, a patio with light-colored stone tiling features umbrella tables and rock waterfalls. Also at the Salmon Creek unit, drive-thru service is speedier thanks to employees who take orders using handheld computers.

Graves says the Salmon Creek location represents the model for all other locations the chain plans to build. At just 39 units, a restaurant staff of 1,560, and a corporate team of 40, the chain is not a large one. Burgerville has no franchised units, just company-owned ones. But all that could change. Although Graves says the company won't disclose its earnings or the markets it plans to target for expansion during the next three to four years, he did say where they want to head next. “We're setting our sights on Seattle,” he says. No official plans are in the works, he notes. Aside from the friendly service, and contemporary, clean décor, the Salmon Creek location offers another added plus: It's a “green” place in many ways. Outside at the back of the restaurant, a composting bin holds biodegradables to reduce garbage pick-up and provide material for soil fertilizers. And all of the Burgerville locations send off to refineries a combined 7,500 gallons of 100-percent trans fat-free cooking and frying oil each month, which is converted to make 6,400 gallons of biodiesel for use by trucks and cars such as Mercedes, Volkswagon and Audi that run on the fuel. Biodiesel is less toxic than petroleum diesel, and helps lower emissions in the air. The way the conversion process works is a fryer drains oil into a caddy that sits underneath the equipment, and employees hook up the caddy to a tank that sucks up the oil through a pump. Then, about once a month, a truck comes by, hooks up a hose through the outside of the building and takes the oil from the tanks. The truck then transports the stash to the refinery, where the oil is processed and later shipped to gas stations that chose to use it. The Salmon Creek location sends off about 1,000 gallons of the oil a month, Graves says.

Burgerville also leads an initiative to use wind-power as an alterative energy that is both cost- and environmentally friendly. The chain pays a premium to their energy supplier, who agrees to put that extra money toward developing wind farms and other renewable energy sources, including solar energy. As more wind farms are developed, more renewable energy goes through the grid system, thereby cutting down on the need to build fossil fuel generators. Many of those wind farms are located in areas where Burgerville has ranching or farming partners, so the initiative is a way to maintain the chain's mission of supporting local businesses. Graves says that even though the company pays extra for the energy, the initiative is still profitable because it saves on traditional energy costs in the long run. It also attracts more customers who want to spend their money to help both the community and the environment, getting the most “bang for their buck.”

Plus, Burgerville acts as a model to other companies and chains. “The idea is that we are investing in wind-power, and the more companies that do that, the more energy companies will use that technology,” Graves says. “We're trying to take a leadership role.” The trend seems to be catching on — at an event this summer in Washington, Burgerville, in partnership with its utility provider, signed up 62 companies as potential wind-power investors. The chain has also won a green business award from The Sierra Club. The kitchen at the Salmon Creek location doesn't look that much different from other quick-service or fast-casual kitchens, except for perhaps the back-to-back assembly station that runs down the center of the kitchen and keeps operations flowing smoothly. One production line is for in-house customers, and the other caters to the drive-thru service. Holding drawers for the sandwich meat sit at the far end of each line, and next to that, a clam-shell grill for charbroiling the burgers. Next to the grill sits a high-speed toaster for the buns and a heated warming plate.

Two fryers each sit on the furthest left and right sides of the kitchen. On the left side sits a sandwich station with condiments, near the ware- and tray-washing station. Across from the warewashing station is a reach-in refrigerator. A large walk-in cooler separates the front and back parts of the kitchen. In the back, there is a sink, dry storage and a prep table where the enormous Walla Walla are hand-breaded on cookie sheets.

The front of the kitchen houses a separate area for the production of milkshakes and smoothies, which includes three ice cream machines, two stand mixers and undercounter refrigeration. Customers place their order at a traditional-style counter exposing thefront part of the kitchen.

Throughout the dining rooms and near the counters in all of Burgerville's units are flyers describing where the menu ingredients come from as well as the company's wind-power and biodiesel initiatives. Graves says the purpose of this is to educate the community about sustainable practices, meaning initiatives designed to help maintain natural environments.

Most items on the menu are a bit more expensive than some of the large-scale fast-food chains, but they are still reasonably priced, Graves says. “Our guests expect to pay more, and they don't feel bad about it because they know their money is going to the community where they live,” he says. “They support us very well.”

Facts of Note

Ownership: Private; The Holland Inc.

Opened: 1961

Headquarters: Vancouver, Wash.

Units: 39

Size: 3,200-sq.-ft. (average)

Seats: 65 to 110

Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Menu Specialties: All-natural beef burgers with Tillamook cheddar cheese; Walla Walla onion rings; milk shakes with locally grown berries; North Pacific halibut fillet sandwiches; and fries prepared in trans fat-free oil

Staff: 1,600 (includes corporate and unit staff)