When George Propstra opened the first Burgerville USA in 1961, he insisted on two key ingredients: fresh and local.
50 years and 39 restaurants later, his vision is alive and well. With its commitment to local farms and producers, Burgerville now features more than 25 seasonal and year-round local business relationships.
In the early 1990’s, however, Propstra’s vision for the Vancouver-based restaurant chain was nearly lost.
“We were slowly but surely losing market share,” recalls Jack Graves, Burgerville’s chief cultural officer. “Carl’s Jr., Jack in the Box and a lot of other burger companies came into the region and we just couldn’t keep up with their marketing abilities. It was tough for us to compete.”
Adding insult to injury were the “burger wars” of the early 90’s, as restaurants like Burger King, McDonald’s and Wendy’s competed to sell the cheapest hamburger without going out of business.
With its back against the wall, Graves said Burgerville had to take a long, hard look at how it was doing business.
“It was pretty clear we had to find another way,” said Graves, who has been with the company for 35 years. “To do this, we had to identify a niche that really worked for us.”
In 1995, Burgerville took a renewed look at its attributes and strengths. Before long, the restaurant's use of local ingredients was identified as one of them.
“That [focus on local] really pointed us in the direction of how we were going to do business,” said Graves.
With an emphasis on local, Burgerville revamped its menu, upgraded its sandwiches and began to remodel its restaurants.
This, Graves said, was a defining moment for the company.
“We turned the corner in ‘95 and haven’t looked back,” he said. “We’ve continued to see the value in doing business locally and we’re identifying local partners whenever we can.”
Thanks to Burgerville’s many local partners, roughly 75 percent of the ingredients its restaurants use are from the Northwest, according to Graves. Some of the company’s partnerships go back several decades, others just a few years.
“I think they [Burgerville] are a great partner and their idea of sourcing things locally is admirable,” said Marie Osmunson, owner of Lake Oswego-based Chez Gourmet. Osmunson partnered with Burgerville in 2008 to supply the restaurant with its vegetarian burgers.
“Sourcing local keeps the money circulating in this area and it really does help the local economy,” said Osmunson. “They also really encourage the companies they source from to also source locally. I think that’s really nice.”
Burgerville’s newest partnership, which has yet to expand to all of its restaurants, involves cookies supplied by Seattle-based Cougar Mountain Baking Company. David Saulnier, owner of Cougar Mountain, said he was drawn to the Vancouver-based restaurant chain because of the local products they use and the farm connections they have.
Saulnier admitted the folks at Burgerville were initially lukewarm on the idea of sourcing from a business as far away as Seattle. However, he said all that changed when they visited his company and realized there were many shared values.
“When we got the chance to sit down and talk things through, they saw how focused we are on sourcing our ingredients from local farms,” Saulnier explained. “They realized it was a good fit, and we did too.”
In addition to the economic benefit sourcing local can have on a community, Saulnier, Osmunson and Graves each stressed the value of quality control and transparency that come out of local partnerships.
“In the past, our distributor would bring us blueberries from California and the next week they’d be from South Africa,” said Saulnier. “I don’t think my distributor was visiting that farm in South Africa, so who’s checking up? It’s an amazing feeling to be able to vote with our dollars to keep things local and to really know where we are.”
Graves said the demand for local has rapidly increased in the last five to eight years. He believes a large part of that movement is a growing distrust of the food system, as recalls and health scares continue to make headlines.
“More people want to know what they are feeding their kids and where their food is really coming from,” he explained. “We know that if we had one of those kinds of outbreaks in our restaurants it would be devastating. We couldn’t withstand it like some of the big players that have larger dollars behind them.”
With food safety in mind, Graves said Burgerville’s 50-year partnership with Fulton Provision Company – a Portland-based meat processor and distributor – has been a huge advantage.
“They [Fulton] have always helped us find the safest beef possible to make hamburgers out of,” said Graves. “It’s always been fresh, it’s always been Northwest. On top of it, our beef is free-range and there are no added hormones.”
Graves gets much of his confidence in Burgerville’s meat suppliers from his ability to trace the hamburger from a restaurant cooler all the way back to the ranch where it came from.
“I’ve been to every link in our supply chain,” he said. “I know we have the safest beef possible and there is no doubt in my mind about that. No other chain really has that advantage like we do.”
Despite the numerous advantages of sourcing local, it doesn’t come without complications. Graves said price and availability are constant challenges that his company has to deal with.
“Chicken is one of those challenges, due to the lack of local suppliers,” Graves explained. “The other obvious things are lettuce and tomato – products that only grow here a few months.”
Graves said Burgerville simply can’t afford to spend four dollars a pound on greenhouse-grown tomatoes because, “you wouldn’t pay another buck for that sandwich.” Instead, the restaurant gets its lettuce and tomato from selective farms in California.
“The months of December, January and February are really challenging,” said Graves. “What do you see that gets ripe around here?”
Considering the lack of local options for things like orange juice, Burgerville has done a remarkable job of turning what could be perceived as a negative, into a positive.
“We really get creative and think about what to fill these voids with,” said Graves. “That’s when we come up with things like the Yukon white bean natural patty made with grains. More recently, we had the portabella mushroom burger.
“I think people understand that it’s the things we are able to offer that differentiates us from our competitors.”
With its Portland-Vancouver footprint and network of local suppliers, Graves said it’s a complicated process to expand Burgerville’s geographical reach.
However, one area where he believes it could be done fairly easily is in the emerald city.
“Seattle is kind of a no-brainer,” Graves said. “When this economy stabilizes a little bit more and we feel like we're ready for growth, it’s a logical market for us.”
According to Graves, most of Burgerville’s partners would be able to supply the company in Seattle. For those that couldn’t, he said the company would identify Seattle-area farmers and ranchers with similar shared values.
“Growing is challenging, though I think it’s very doable if we can be local wherever we go,” he said.