What Does It Take to Make a Commitment to Sourcing Local or Organic?
By AJ Dronkers & Susan Able -- Illustrations by Gavin Roarke
They have likely become part of your regular dining repertoire. Located seemingly everywhere, you walk by them, you crave them, and yes there are apps for that. Fast-casual eateries are on the rise across the region, and the DMV has been the birthplace for many shooting stars of the genre. Some that have seen national success include Sweetgreen, CAVA, Elevation Burger and &Pizza. Takorean, Beefsteak and Taylor Gourmet are seeing tremendous success and growing locally.
The rise of DC’s fast-casual segment mirrors what is happening nationally amid a shrinkage in all other restaurant categories, including full-service and fine-dining restaurants.
Part of the growth is attributed to popularity among millennials—a population that DC has attracted en masse. Demographic research suggests that the professional millennial cohort have demanding jobs, working more and therefore cooking a little less. They also appear to be the driver for demanding healthier, sustainable and/or organic food at an approachable price point.
Many of these brands emphasize sourcing locally and sustainably, and they are expanding rapidly. So how do they manage their supply chain to fulfill their initial mission, the one that helped them build a core of followers?
Sourcing local, sustainable and ethical food isn’t always easy. And we take for granted getting quality fast-casual food for around $10. How are companies able to deliver that when they have a mission to invest in better food sourcing? We decided to find out more about how local fast casuals were dealing with supply chain issues and we talked with the founders of two local food start-ups. After our conversations, it’s clear a lot of passion and dedication goes into creating fast-casual concepts that care. Their investment in small farmers, processors and even the transportation system means lower profits, but a long-term gain of better food, a healthier environment, eager new markets and a stronger community of loyal customers.
CAVA grill started here in DC in 2006 and has grown to over 21 locations across Maryland, Virginia, New York and now California. Their healthy fast-casual Mediterranean concept has helped make harissa and “crazy feta” popular at grocers like Whole Foods Market, which sells CAVA spreads in over 160 stores. CAVA’s expansion has been driven by substantive venture capital (VC) funding.
EDIBLE DC: Restaurant concepts are often a risk. Why do these VC firms see investing in fast-casual as a smart investment?
Brett Schulman (CAVA chief operating officer): They love that we are a mission-based, healthy-lifestyle brand, making a positive impact throughout our supply chain. All investors are seeing disruption in the world of food. Similar to when Whole Foods disrupted the grocery market, we have disrupted fast-food.
In 2016, CAVA announced a partnership with a local lamb farm called Border Springs out of Southwest Virginia. But that partnership really took work to figure out. We met and talked with Border Springs owner Craig Rogers, and we knew we wanted to work with this man who had so much passion, but it took two years to bring it to fruition.
EDC: How did sourcing local, grass-fed, antibiotic-free lamb come into reality?
Brett: What gets me so excited—we had two partners who were relentless in the pursuit of figuring it out: Craig Rogers and us. We had looked at a lot of different prices. Can we get it at a price that supports the farmer but also works for our customers? It took a lot of grit and passion to find the balance.
EDC: What were some of the obstacles after you identified Border Springs as a good fit?
Brett: The local meat processing side is a challenge. Small and medium meat processors have either closed or have been gobbled up. So even though the “buy local” meat movement has grown, there isn’t as much infrastructure to support the process. Another challenge was distribution. Distribution and transportation are some of the highest costs associated with goods. After two years, we found a processor that could process the lamb effectively at the volume we needed, keep humane standards, adhere to our standards and scale with the growth.
EDC: So with all of this “grit and passion” to make it reality, how do you stay profitable?
Brett: We have to sacrifice margin on some of our end, obviously. But our assembly-line service and other aspects of business where we save money means we can invest that savings into other parts like sourcing local.
Elevation Burger, a 100% organic grass-fed beef fast-casual, started here in Northern Virginia and has expanded to 60+ units including locations across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Quatar. They are one of the largest fast-casual sellers of grass-fed beef in the country. AJ Dronkers sat down with co-founder and VP of Supply Chain Michael Berger.
EDC: Why was going with grass-fed beef so important to you?
Michael Berger (Elevation vice president): We set out to change the industrial complex of beef agriculture. We do advocacy, recently testifying in Maryland in support of stricter livestock regulation around vaccine and antibiotic use that is resulting in resistant bacteria. Hans Hess, our founder, was working on Capitol Hill in late 1990s doing research on antibiotic use in livestock and the resulting human sickness from these superbugs. While there may not be a Whole Foods Market in rural parts of the U.S., we knew that there could be an Elevation Burger to provide people a good healthy product at the right price point. And ultimately, if we create enough market for organic beef, we could create change in our food system.
EDC: How do you source 100% organic grass-fed beef for so many locations?
Michael: We have a multi-country sourcing strategy. It was hard to find just one place that could handle our volume. We’ve had to help farmers get certified, and help educate producers on going organic in exchange for priority on product. We are buying from over 100 small beef farmers.
EDC: How does the sustainability and health consciousness of your brand resonate with consumers? Does it make a difference?
Michael: When we look at our data—how people make decisions on where they eat, it isn’t necessarily about the quality. Proximity, costs and taste play a large role. About a ⅓ of our guests are really responding to product attributes such as non-GMO, no hormones, organic, grass-fed, etc.
EDC: Tell me how these values play out in a franchise model. How do you guarantee the ethos of your mission, brand and values with new owners all over the world?
Michael: All our franchisees believe in what we are doing. For example, we have Muslim franchises and they are proud of our halal meat. Our expansions in markets where they don’t have access to clean meat attracts other investors. Or parents who said they opened their eyes to organic when they had kids. There are a lot of different burger franchises that you can buy out there—so we tend to attract people who really care about organic.
Beefsteak is the new veggie-centric fast-casual concept from Chef José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup. With five outlets so far, the concept at Beefsteak is similar to other multi-ingredient bowl fast-casual programs, where customers can design their own meal chosing from grains, to greens, to veggies and sauces. And while Beefsteak puts veggies “center stage,” it is not vegetarian with toppings in the form of cheese, chicken, eggs and salmon. Susan Able spoke to a man with one of DC’s great job titles, chief of produce, former farmer Bennett Haynes, about the challenge of keeping it fresh and local.
EDC: When a restaurant focuses on veggies as the main ingredient, what kind of pressure is on you to find the top-quality produce?
Bennett Hayes (chief of produce, Beefsteak): I was a farmer in New Jersey myself before I came to Beefsteak, so I love farming and growing things, and I used to grow for restaurants and work in kitchens during the winters, so I understood how restaurants work with menu development to make things profitable. My first goal was to understand Beefsteak’s food costs and supply needs. We definitely buy commodity produce, I’m not going to greenwash that—we go through 600 pounds of broccoli a week and the reality is that a lot of it is coming from California.
EDC: What bar have you set for buying local—what kind of importance does that have for you?
Bennett: So our local focus is buying stuff in season. We work with our broker to develop those relationships and I go to farm markets and bring in vendors to promote—like Toigo Orchards, who has great apples and also produces high-quality tomatoes.
Tomatoes are a good example of what we do with local produce. In season, from July to early October, we can source our tomatoes locally. Our goal is to access as much local produce as possible: fruit crops, apples, squash, butternut squash. Local sourcing hasn’t been part of our marketing—we’ve been more focused on promoting quality. But our brand is a work in progress and we’re still defining our purchasing program.
EDC: Can local farmers grow enough produce for Beefsteak?
Bennett: Yes, vegetable by vegetable. Opportunities are there for local growers who want to specialize. A farmer with a 50- to 100-acre farm can go big on something and see if that pays off. At the end of the day, the farmer needs to grow and grow revenue, so the question is, ‘What could work for wholesale?’ At the same time, restaurants beyond Beefsteak have to be open to what wholesale really means and need to accommodate what is in season. For example, we need to see turnips as sexy—they are available all winter long, they are not expensive and can be used in a lot of different ways. A brand like ThinkFoodGroup, our parent, can develop different ways to use these sustainable vegetables to make them interesting and fun menu items.
EDC: What kinds of things keep the chief of produce up at night?
Bennett: I have very big concerns about the future of agriculture; our model based on surplus is pretty flawed and we should get back to local, regional agriculture. Our goal? A 500-mile foodshed is something we are working toward. Highlighting the focus on our region’s top produce from Eastern Shore kale, to Carolina sweet potatoes, to Georgia stone fruit. The intention with creating a “chief of produce” role was to help drive these decisions about seasonality and promote great vegetables.