Photo courtesy of Elevation Burger
Elevating fast food
Is it possible to change the world one organic hamburger at a time? The founders of the Elevation Burger chain are going to try. They felt called to build on the positive aspects of the fast-food model to create an Earth-friendlier restaurant that offers healthier food at affordable prices.
July 17, 2012 | It’s about 1 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, and the Elevation Burger in Falls Church, Va., is packed with a hungry lunch crowd.
Every few minutes, an employee bearing a tray full of food emerges from behind the front counter, examines the ticket and calls a name: Dave. Mark. Pamela.
At a long table in the middle of the room, a gaggle of children in summer-camp T-shirts munch on burgers and fries.
The children don’t care that the burgers are organic, made from grass-fed, free-range cattle. Or that the fries are cooked in healthier olive oil. Or that the milk in their chocolate shakes is hormone-free.
“It’s yummier than McDonalds,” said Jan Aiello, whose two children, ages 6 and 9, are part of the group. “And it’s organic -- that’s important to me.”
It was equally important to Hans and April Hess, who opened this first Elevation Burger restaurant in September 2005. Nearly seven years later, the country’s first organic fast-food burger chain has grown to nearly 30 restaurants in the United States and the Middle East. Another 15 locations are slated to open this year and about 150 are in the development pipeline.
At first blush, the fast-food model seems an odd choice for a company with a heavily organic menu, environmentally friendly construction practices and a commitment to recycling everything from burger wrappers to used cooking oil.
But for all its flaws, the industry had key qualities the Hesses were looking for: affordable prices, accessibility to families, fast service.
Their challenge? To incorporate what was good about the fast-food industry with their own desire to do right by the planet and its people. And because they had a mortgage to pay and a family to support, they had to achieve that social good while also making a profit.
“The Earth is something we should be taking care of, not systematically destroying,” said CEO Hans Hess, 40. “I felt that God calls us to be stewards of creation, people who take care of it, so that was the driving force behind Elevation Burger in my head. I was going to try to do this completely opposite of the way the industry does it. I’m going to try to do this responsibly.”
‘I wanted to get this food to people’
Hans Hess’ love affair with burgers started young. He and his mother, Dee, who’s now an administrative assistant at the company, would sample hamburgers wherever they went, intent on finding the very best one.
Still, crafting the perfect burger was a long way off for Hess. Raised in Carmel, Calif., he majored in physics at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before earning a master’s in theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. He intended to become a missionary with a nondenominational evangelical organization and, back home in California, began raising money to support a mission trip to Siberia.
About halfway through the process, he developed a severe case of insomnia. For six weeks, he was lucky to get an hour of sleep a night.
Questions to consider:
- In what ways did Hess fulfill his earlier dream to be a missionary? What does mission look like today?
- How can a Christian entrepreneur balance faith and making a profit? Is there a point at which they become mutually exclusive?
- Hess took an existing business model he considered broken and found positive values to build on. How would you redesign your institution? What are the core values to build on?
- How transparent is your organization? To what extent can those you serve see “what’s going on behind the counter”?
- How can the church help businesspeople think about and integrate faith and work?
“It was awful. So I prayed about it. I just didn’t know what to do. And it just kind of came to me that the idea of going overseas was probably a really bad idea,” said Hess. He decided not to go -- and promptly slept for 14 hours.
Not long after that, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he went to work for a congressman from Michigan.
There, he read a report that suggsted a link between the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock and the rise in deadly, antibiotic-resistant infections in people. In crowded feedlots, cows are fed corn to fatten them up quickly and antibiotics to ward off infection. Research suggests that the practice contributes to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA, a strain of staph that kills about 20,000 Americans a year.
The potential connection between the country’s food supply and the failing health of its citizens made Hess queasy.
Hess later took a job with a real estate consultant, but the food-safety issue nagged at him. He and wife April, who are members of The Falls Church (Anglican), often bought organic groceries, but there weren’t many organic restaurant options -- and certainly none for people on a budget.
“There was no mass outlet for the kind of food I wanted to eat, so when I had the idea for Elevation Burger, that was the whole point. I wanted to get this food to people and make it affordable,” said Hess, who first suggested the idea to April around Thanksgiving 2002.
Their first thought was that “somebody should do this.” Then, April Hess said, they realized, “Why should somebody else do this? We should do this.”
It wasn’t the missionary work that Hess once considered, but the effort still felt like an expression of his faith, he said.
“I had a sense that it was a faith/God-directed calling from the moment I had the idea,” he said. “First, because stewardship of creation is such a big part of the idea, but also because there was and is so much about the idea that mediates or transmits God’s blessings, in the way sons of Abraham should.”
The couple wanted the restaurant to be accessible to the average family. So they pursued the fast-food model but with two key differences: Everything would be fresh, which meant no heat lamps or precooked patties. And the ingredients would be top-notch, which meant prices would be slightly higher than the average fast-food joint.
“Using those two rules, we navigated through supply and operations issues fairly quickly,” Hess said.
Because the restaurant’s mission would be to offer a better, “elevated” product, they called their idea Elevation Burger. Hess conducted market surveys, something he’d done regularly as a real estate consultant, to gauge demand for organic fast food. Respondents overwhelmingly wanted meat that was free of antibiotics, pesticides, hormones and other chemicals, as well as vegetarian and vegan patties. This reassured them that they weren’t the only ones interested in the idea.
“It was something I thought the world needed and deserved. It wasn’t just an interesting project. I felt it was something God called us to do,” said April Hess, who was a banker before becoming the company's chief financial officer. “Most people who start a successful business don’t sit down and say, ‘How can I make a lot of money?’ We sat down and said, ‘This is something we’d like our family and friends to have access to.’ We have deeply believed from the beginning that this is what we are called to do.”