The news that Burger King is merging with coffee giant Tim Hortons is the biggest Canadian news story since the invention of handwarmers.
While this merger should fill me with either nationalist pride or nationalist disappointment, I wish it were going to fill me with something different: delicious, guilt-free burgers like those served at Burgerville.
Burgerville is an Oregon phenomenon that I desperately wish would spread to the rest of North America – or at least, the rest of the Pacific Northwest. We first discovered it on a visit to Portland several years ago, when we noticed its un-prepossessing restaurants in a handful of locations across the city. Since it looked like a McDonald’s, we assumed it was some lousy local knock-off and avoided it like the plague…until, in the midst of a kid hunger meltdown, desperation drove us to its door.
What we discovered was not a McDonald’s knock-off: it was what McDonald’s would be if it were run by eco-friendly locavores. The burgers are made from locally sourced natural beef, sourced from a food cooperative and endorsed by Dr.Temple Grandin. Their ingredients are sourced locally, and their milkshakes are made not from an edible oil product but from real milk and seasonal fruit. (Don’t worry, they have chocolate milkshakes, too.) They have a huge commitment to sustainability, and when you finish eating your meal, most of the waste goes into the compost (thanks to compostable packaging) and virtually everything else gets recycled. Instead of a soon-to-be-disposed plastic toy, their equivalent of the Happy Meal comes with something like a “design your own bike helmet” challenge, or this summer, a package of seeds to plant in your home garden. The prices are comparable to McDonald’s ($1.29 for a hamburger; $3.79 for a Tillamook Cheeseburger), though it takes a tiny bit longer to get your food. And last – but by no means least – the food is actually delicious.
There’s a lot more to be said about what makes Burgerville a uniquely appealing option in the world of fast food, particularly for those of with environmental, ethical or aesthetic objections to mass-produced burgers. These are the very objections that make me regretful that Burger King decided to launch its merger to the north, rather than to the Pacific Northwest.
But I suspect that some of Burgerville’s magic would be hard to scale nationally – though the company has expanded enormously within the Portland area – in part because so much depends on a local supply chain that by definition has to be replicated region-by-region, rather than trucked long-distance. And if tax inversion is indeed an important motivation for Burger King’s Tim Hortons merger, Burgerville clearly would not fit the bill.
Yet I can hardly believe that tax savings, breakfast muffins and idolized coffee will get Burger King out of the fast food doldrums. What Burger King needs is a value proposition that categorically separates it from the rest of the fast food pack. Going after the growing eco-friendly and locavore markets would offer the fast food giant a way to differentiate its brand from its competitors, and to serve customers who are clearly hungry for new options.
Listening to those customers is, of course, the first step to assessing the potential of a green, locavore strategy. That means not only engaging with existing Burger King and Tim Horton’s customers to find out what they expect from the merger, but also talking to people who aren’t customers today: patrons of other fast food chains, and most crucially, those who are not regular fast food consumers but might be if they had new options available. Just as important – given the role that the local supply chain plays in Burgerville’s success – the company needs to engage with suppliers so that it knows what might be feasible if it chooses to pursue locally-sourced, sustainable options.
Burgerville offers a great source of inspiration for what is, after today’s merger, one of world’s largest fast food companies. Exploring its sustainable, locally-sourced model of food production isn’t just smart business — it’s the kind of thinking we need if ever-growing food conglomerates are going to be good for the planet, and for consumers.