December 19, 2007 | General

Quick Service Food Chain Pushes The Sustainability Envelope

BioCycle December 2007, Vol. 48, No. 12, p. 20
Burgerville restaurants add composting to their list of green initiatives, with the goal of reaching 85 percent waste diversion.
Nora Goldstein

NATURALLY raised beef. Locally grown vegetables and fruit. Health care coverage for all employees, including hourly workers. Wind-powered electricity. Biodiesel production from used cooking oil. Recycling, composting and waste reduction. These are the ingredients propelling The Holland, Inc.’s Burgerville restaurant chain to the top of the sustainability charts, and at a profit no less. According to a January 2007 article in Forbes, Burgerville’s profit margin is 10 percent versus McDonald’s 15 percent, but at the end of the day, the company is making green by being green.
Started in 1961 by The Holland, Inc. in Vancouver, Washington, there are now 39 Burgerville restaurants in Oregon and Southwest Washington. All restaurants are company-owned, and feature hormone- and antibiotic-free hamburgers and hotdogs, Walla Walla onions, cage-free eggs and locally grown berries in its shakes. “From a supply chain perspective, The Holland, Inc. has been sourcing fresh and locally grown foods decades before it was ‘cool,'” says Alison Dennis, Supply Chain Director. “The company was founded on serving fresh products and supporting local communities.”
Over the last few years, The Holland, Inc. began instituting other green initiatives. It purchases 100 percent renewable wind power credits from local wind farms. Some of the new wind farms that have been developed are on land where Burgerville’s Country Natural Beef is raised. Utilities pay farmers and ranchers a fee for placing wind equipment on their land. In March 2006, The Holland implemented a program to recycle used trans fat free cooking oil from all of its restaurants into biodiesel fuel. The used cooking oil is collected by Portland (Oregon)-based MRP Services and taken to a processing plant. A total of 7,500 gallons/month of the cooking and frying oil is recycled by The Holland.
Until recently, participation in community recycling programs was left up to each individual restaurant. Then, in June, 2007, the company began a recycling and composting pilot program at one of its Vancouver, Washington area restaurants. Food waste and soiled paper and packaging from the kitchen were separated into a composting container. All containers, including bottles and cans, were recycled. In October 2007, The Holland, Inc. announced that its pilot program was being expanded across the entire chain. “Our pilot program proved that a passionate commitment from our employees and small, sensible adjustments to the daily routine will allow us to successfully launch this recycling model into all our restaurants,” says Tom Mears, President and CEO of The Holland, Inc. The goal is to have all 39 restaurants fully recycling and composting by mid-2008. The company projects annual savings of $100,000 due to the waste diversion.
Amaranth Wilson started working at a Burgerville restaurant as an assistant manager in 2005. She had just received a degree in Hospitality and Restaurant Management, and had wanted to work for The Holland, Inc. because of its sustainability practices. “I had worked in a lot of restaurants, as well as schools and community centers and in every place, I always put in a recycling system,” says Wilson. “As soon as I started working at the Burgerville restaurant, I wanted to set up a program for commingled recycling. I found out that recycling was not consistent throughout the chain, and no one was really sure how to do it. I called the waste hauler and found out the service was available to us. We just had to utilize it.”
While working with the local hauler, Wilson learned about a composting program offered to commercial customers in the Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon regions (located in fairly close proximity to each other). Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development (OSD), and Clark County, Washington’s Public Works Recycling and Solid Waste Program both offer services for commercial organics diversion. Services include logistic support and employee training, as well as equipment and resources – including interior collection bins, instructional posters and stickers, says Babe O’Sullivan of OSD. “We also provide recognition through newspaper ads and a tool kit for their own publicity needs, as well as a window cling sticker to let customers know they compost,” she adds. All food waste and soiled paper from the Portland and Vancouver area programs are taken to a transfer station operated by METRO, the regional government agency in the Portland area, and then is hauled to Cedar Grove Composting in the Seattle region for composting.
“By just eye-balling our restaurant’s waste stream, I could tell we had a lot of compostable materials in it,” recalls Wilson. “Then we worked with OSD to do a waste audit, which identified that 85 percent of the restaurant’s total waste stream could be recycled and composted.” The waste audit was conducted at one store location based on a sample of approximately 250 pounds of garbage, notes O’Sullivan. The audit found the following: 1 percent containers; 80 percent food waste and food soiled paper; 4 percent mixed paper and 5 percent film plastic (of which 1 percent was clean and recyclable).
“This adds up to about 86 percent of the garbage that was either compostable or recyclable,” says O’Sullivan. “It should be noted that the audit was done when Cedar Grove Composting was still accepting milk cartons, freezer boxes, paper cups and other food soiled paper that has a plastic lining. They no longer accept these materials, so the 80 percent figure for compostables may be slightly less.” Jerry Bartlett of Cedar Grove Composting explains that the plastic lining breaks down into small pieces that were showing up in the final compost screen. As the volume of this packaging grew, this became a problem for the company, which led to the decision to stop accepting these materials.
Results of the audit convinced Wilson that waste diversion made sense for all Burgerville restaurants. “I saw an opportunity to bring this recycling and composting program company-wide, and talked with Alison Dennis about the idea,” she recalls. “Alison created the space for me to work on this full-time in May 2007. My job entails designing and implementing a system whereby all Burgerville restaurants can recycle and compost 85 percent of their waste stream.”
The primary reason waste diversion was put on a fast track is that The Holland, Inc. is a “people company” that encourages employee initiatives, says Dennis. “Burgerville’s take on what it means to be a sustainable business starts with its people. By sustaining individuals within the company and supporting their development, we create leaders who make a difference in their communities and for the planet. This commitment empowered Wilson to build momentum for our composting and recycling program quickly.”
The Holland, Inc. estimates it generates 340 tons/month of waste. In order to get to 85 percent diversion, both dining room and kitchen organics, including soiled paper and packaging, need to be recycled. “What we discovered during the pilot is that if we only divert organics from the back of the restaurant, the composting program pays for itself,” explains Wilson. “But when we bring it to the front of the house, we can save money. So we are coming at this first from a cost-neutral perspective.” She notes that in Clark County, the cost to pick up two cubic yards of garbage is $146, versus $85 to pick up two cubic yards of organics. Participating restaurants are using compostable bags to line their inside containers (BioTuf bags from Heritage), at the cost of $.53/bag. “The savings come when we can reduce the pick ups of the trash containers,” she adds.
While all food is made fresh-to-order, food waste is kept to a minimum through strategic sourcing and process improvement efforts in the kitchen. Lettuce for salads comes packaged in bags; the only vegetable prep is slicing tomatoes. “The food waste stream includes meat, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, French fries and other potato products, banana peels, coffee grounds, tea bags, burger wraps and the separators between the fresh hamburger patties,” says Wilson.
The first step in implementing a waste diversion program is to start with container and paper recycling. Most of the restaurants were not doing any recycling beyond cardboard. Having worked in a Burgerville restaurant, Wilson recognizes the importance of getting employees at each location to establish the program in a way that works for them. “At one restaurant, we introduced recycling by providing containers and signs,” she says. “It was really hard for them to get it started, so the general manager turned the program over to another manager – someone who a month earlier was pretty skeptical about the program. She started by taking photos of all the items that are recyclable, and posted the photos over the recycling container. It was a complete turnaround. After that, we introduced the composting program, and she did the same thing with materials that are supposed to go into the green composting bins. We believe that by the general manager empowering this person to take the program on, she tapped into her natural ability to take charge and be successful. We learned that the most pessimistic person usually becomes your biggest proponent if you can find a way to tap into his or her passion.”
Currently, 35 of the 39 Burgerville restaurants have recycling programs and 12 do both recycling and composting. As the kinks get worked out in the back of the restaurant, Wilson and other Burgerville staff are determining how to bring the program into the dining room. Wilson is working with the company’s service and repair team to convert existing waste receptacle enclosures into color-coded 3-part units for the dining room. “Our goal is to recycle our existing waste bins,” she says.
Recently, one restaurant decided it wanted to start offering recycling and composting in the dining area. Employees removed the garbage cans from the dining room, and decided to bus the tables themselves. “When they order their food, customers are told about the restaurant’s composting and recycling program and that tables will be cleared for them,” Wilson explains. “They don’t intend to hire more employees, but instead use staff that isn’t doing another task at the moment. For example, if the person grilling the burgers gets a break, he or she will go out and bus the table and interact with the guests. The goal is to get everyone participating and engage the guests.” Two restaurants are doing recycling and composting in the front and back of the house.
Dennis adds that Burgerville customers will not be surprised by this outreach from the staff. “Burgerville’s brand has been about providing an extraordinary experience – not just a faceless exchange over the counter,” she explains. “Customers count on the staff to have a conversation with them. Our recycling and composting program is one more conversation employees can have with our guests about what’s fresh and new at Burgerville.”
The next step for Dennis, as Supply Chain Director, is to work on the remaining 15 percent of the company’s waste stream. “A large portion of that material is a handful of food packaging items, mostly from how the food is transported to us,” she notes. “We are working with our suppliers on alternative packaging and source reduction. Our commitment is that the steps we are taking will inspire action throughout the food industry in general. It will take a critical mass of like-minded businesses and communities to drive the changes that will have the biggest impacts on packaging and composting.”

Sign up