PDX 2010 Green Line Series: Going Green Is Tasty Too w/Burgerville’s Alison Dennis Shares Their Recipe For Sustainability Success

Burgerville Director of Sustainable Programs, Alison Dennis, holds an enviable position. Not only does she serve as the conduit between Burgerville’s sustainable programs and the communities they inhabit, but she also gets to indulge in their delicious blackberry milkshakes—among other tasty treats—for free! We’re just hoping she brings us some treats in October to munch on while she speaks at GoGreen Portland. She’s a speaker you don’t want to miss—offering a wealth of optimism, ingenuity and authentic determination for taking your business further down a sustainable path one cage free egg at a time.

GoGreen Conference: What is your role with Burgerville and what do you do for them?
Alison Dennis:
I serve as Burgerville’s Director of Sustainable Programs and that means working first and foremost with our food supply chain to ensure that our values are present at each link in the chain—from the grain farms, ranches, bakeries and cheese makers we work with—through to our restaurant environments and dining rooms in things like our composting and recycling programs. We want to make it easy for our restaurant guests to be active players in our sustainable supply chain.

I also work on our other sustainability initiatives, such as our food oil recycling program and our 100 percent wind power purchasing program. I look at every aspect of our business through a sustainability lens and work to find ways to invite everyone within the Burgerville family, and the greater community we serve, to be a part of what we’re doing.

GG: Fast food restaurants aren’t really known for making choices that take the environment into account. Since you operate in this industry, how have you been able to be successful in breaking a mold that seems pretty well established?
Well, Burgerville turns 50 next year, so I wasn’t here when the company was first forming, but I don’t see that we have ever been formed by that mold. Right from the beginning in 1961, Burgerville was not interested in competing in price wars—they call them the 19-cent burger wars. Instead the differentiators of the brand have always been sourcing quality ingredients—Burgerville has always served fresh, never-frozen beef since the first burger was flipped—keeping as many of our dollars within the local business economy as possible—which is still a core value of the company—and a deep commitment to community service and charitable giving. Those values have sustained us since day one and informed how we make decisions.

GG: Has sustainability always been a part of those core values—at least in some form, even if not by name? Or was that a conversation that came later in Burgerville’s lifecycle as a business?
I think all of those values I just described—focus on quality ingredients, keeping money in the local economy and charitable giving—are pillars of contemporary definitions of sustainable business leadership. They’ve just been a part of who we are since long before there was ever a business community conversation about “green” or “sustainability.” So it’s been very natural for the company, over the decades, to continue to ask ourselves what it means to be a good corporate citizen in today’s world and continue to be progressive. It’s especially important in this region to have a contemporary guest space, because there is a strong tradition of caring about people, air, land and water—and preserving our local environment and agricultural traditions.

GG: Why was it so important for the founders and then the leadership, as these 50 years have gone by, to take on those tenants as a core part of their business and integrate our modern definition of sustainability into what Burgerville is doing so rigorously?
Our mission is to serve with love. As a supply chain and sustainability professional, I can’t imagine a more heartfelt place from which to source my work. How can we serve all kinds of people with access to the most sustainably produced, best local ingredients? How can we serve our regional agricultural community and ensure that another generation of families can make a living farming? Our mission truly invites us to look at the food industry and restaurant industry with fresh eyes and engage our local food community from the heart. That’s why I think it’s so important and why we approach things as rigorously as we do.

GG: You mentioned the 19-cent burger wars—which are more like 99-cent burger wars today. How do you compete with that? Are these more encompassing sustainable programs good for you bottom line or are you just willing to take in a little less profit to do well by your community and the Earth?
: Where we focus our energy, and the kinds of conversations that we engage in, are really about bringing true value to the table. So, making the best ingredients as affordable to as many people as possible is very important. At the same time, we’re looking at many other ways to ensure that we’re bringing that value to the table as well. Does the person serving you your food have access to affordable healthcare at work? We believe that’s a part of true value.

Purchasing 100 percent wind power credits to fuel our restaurants is another way we believe we’re bringing additional value to the table. All of those decisions—and the commitment to local purchasing and so on—we think they add up to true value, not just a price conversation. And it’s absolutely profitable. We wouldn’t be able to give as generously to the community and continue our tradition of charitable giving here if we weren’t running a profitable business. That’s a big part of running a sustainable business.

GG: What do your customer’s think of your focus on sustainable and socially responsible values?
Every day we receive comments—through conversations in our restaurants, through our guest chair line (where people reach out to us), our website and social media channels—that share how these decisions are making a meaningful difference in our customer’s lives. That on-going dialogue with the community about what sustainable business looks like today and what they’d like to see us do next is where I get a lot of my ideas and energy.

GG: What has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome? How were you able to maintain your values and stick to your guns?
Inertia. I’d say the best example is when we rolled out Burgerville’s composting, recycling and sustainable packaging program—which is a topic I’ll be focusing on at the GoGreen Conference later this fall. When we first started, we got a lot of feedback telling us we just wouldn’t be able to do it; that we wouldn’t be able to put sorting stations in our dining rooms and expect fast food eaters and workers to engage and take time out of their busy lives to sort waste into the most appropriate and responsible receptacles. So we had to get experimental and put some things out there before we were sure if they would work.

We had employees in our restaurants design how they thought sorting stations and table busing stations should be integrated into their restaurants. From there we started figuring out how to have conversations about that and how to invite all different kinds of people to join in. If you flash forward to today, we have one of the most comprehensive composting, recycling and sustainable packaging programs in the food industry and certainly for our kind of restaurant.

GG: What do you see as the biggest payoff from putting such a big emphasis on integrating these values so deeply into your business and taking on such initiatives?
It’s definitely playing an authentic, positive role in creating sustainable communities in the region that we serve. We want to find ways in which the presence of our restaurants in a community can actually be making a positive impact. If a Burgerville is in your community, does that mean there are more jobs in that neighborhood with access to affordable healthcare? Does it mean your citizens have access to composting and recycling programs, because we’re there, that might not otherwise be available? Those are the areas in which we really strive to make a difference.

GG: How deeply is sustainability integrated into even the nitty-gritty areas of your business? What are some examples—beyond composting and sourcing—where customers might not be able to see it happening, but that it’s still going strong?
The composting is a great, hands-on example and don’t think it gets any more nitty-gritty than that. One that’s more behind-the-scenes is our five-year anniversary of recycling all of our used 100 percent canola cooking oil into bio-fuel. And if you’ve never cleaned out a grease trap before, that’s about as front lines of sustainability as you can possibly get.

GG: Was that your initiation into your job? Cleaning grease traps?
Ha ha. I actually do a lot of cross training and spend a good deal of time engaging with our restaurant team and the talent behind-the-scenes as much as possible. They’re the ones who have the first-hand experience about what it will really take to integrate a sustainable framework and a sustainable decision-making paradigm into the ways various people with various roles do their jobs everyday.

GG: GoGreen has morphed into a diverse audience. Some of our attendees are looking for ways to get to the next level of sustainability and some are just getting started. You guys have been at this for a while—what does sustainable business 2.0, or 3.0 even, look like for Burgerville? How are you taking it to the next level?
I’ll just briefly highlight a couple of new directions we’ve been exploring. We’ve just rolled out company-wide a program where we’re printing nutritional information on our receipts. So when you place a Burgerville order, you’ll get customized nutrition information about the food you just ordered and even tips for the next time you order on ways to, for example, reduce the calorie count by ordering a blackberry smoothie instead of the milkshake you got today. It’s a pretty profound, new social experiment we’re engaging in and we’re getting great feedback from our guest base and nationwide about taking that step and adding that next layer of visibility to empower people’s food choices.

I’m also working now on taking our alternative transportation program to the next level. Last year we opened up all of our drive-thru windows to be bike friendly and that’s gone really well so far. We’re looking to build upon that and find the next generation of initiatives and projects we can take on to invite and reward people for choosing and using active forms of alternative transportation.

GG: To wrap up, there are a lot of business owners and decision-makers who are on board with the idea of taking their business into the sustainable realm, but who don’t see how their individual actions as a business can make an impact on the entire industry. How do you see Burgerville’s actions impacting your industry and changing how business is done in the future?
One tip I would give businesses who are just getting started is to look at making progress one cage-free egg at a time or one napkin at a time. Really look at where your business is having the biggest impact and make decisions based on your unique profile. Pick one project at a time and pick projects that are meaningful that engage the hearts and minds of your audience and talent-base.

I’ll close by saying that I believe that the most profitable companies in the future will be those that take the best care of people and the planet we share. And I’m excited to gather this fall with the GoGreen community to collaborate on the next generation of sustainable business innovation.

Alison Dennis is the Director of Sustainable Programs at Burgerville. She is also a featured speaker at the GoGreen Conference 2010 in Portland, Oregon on October 5, 2010. To register for GoGreen Conference 2010 Portland, please visit: http://www.portland.gogreenconference.net/registration. GoGreen ‘09 sold out, so make sure to sign up soon!

To learn more about Alison Dennis and Burgerville’s sustainable programs, visit: http://burgerville.com/sustainable-business. Follow them on Twitter at: @BVSustainable.

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