Anyone who works in the food business and worries about its future should spend a few minutes with Jill Taylor. For the past five years she’s been the chief executive officer of Burgerville, a fast-casual food chain in the Pacific Northwest, charting a viable path forward for an increasingly unviable industry.
This regional player is helping pioneer a radically more sustainable future for — believe it or not — fast food. A neglected corner of the industry when it comes to thinking about innovation and adaption to climate change, fast casual is also a major part of our nation’s food infrastructure. More than a third of adults will eat fast food on any given day, according to national health data.
Taylor not only kept her company’s doors open during the pandemic but stayed profitable throughout, largely by strengthening a regional food network that has been at the core of her growth strategy during her CEO tenure. By doing so, she was able to evade the supply chain woes that hit so many other restaurants and help keep local ranchers and growers in business. As unlikely as it sounds, this local burger chain, which has grown to 40 outlets since it opened its first store in Vancouver, Washington, in 1961, has built a model that larger companies from Shake Shack to Chipotle should learn from.
Taylor stepped down this week to focus on her family business, leaving Burgerville positioned to expand nationally in the coming years. I spoke with her via Zoom from her home in Oregon. Here are the lightly edited highlights of our conversation.
Amanda Little: When you became CEO in 2017, what was your vision?
Jill Taylor: Back then the Burgerville tag line was Fresh, Local, Sustainable. Then everybody in the Northwest became fresh, local, sustainable. Burgerville has a great track record on this front — we now source about 80% of our ingredients locally. We’ve been antibiotic- and hormone-free for over 20 years now; we do renewable power; we recycle the oil; we put seed packets in kids’ meals instead of plastic toys. But we needed to stand out again. So we raised our taste profile and we raised our brand.
Taylor: I wanted to show that this business could be a part of taking care of your community instead of taking from it. We’re a company that has remained regionally local for over 60 years for a reason. Our tagline is now, “Serve With Love,” which means serving the local economy, local ecosystems and community health. Recently we’ve put regenerative agriculture on the menu, serving beef that’s grass-finished and carbon neutral, and expanded our plant-based options. Our mission is to promote this region as the healthiest region on the planet.
Little: Even with devastating drought in your region and pandemic pressures, you expanded your local supply chain. Walk me through how you accomplished that.
Taylor: Yes, we’ve gone from 75% local sourcing of our ingredients to 80%. During the pandemic, when we all had to shut down, our local supply chain kept us going. We didn’t have breaks in accessing food, we didn’t have to worry if the supply would be there. We’ve been able to help our ranchers and growers scale up their businesses and offer affordable prices. We’ve changed up our menu based on what farmers had on offer.
Little: For example?
Taylor: We found an organic mint farm just up the Columbia River. So we created some recipes for mint milkshakes that soon sold in all our restaurants. And that farmer later said, “Boy, that’s the thing that really helped us stay in business during the pandemic.” We do that with other businesses — our food team regularly scans what’s happening with growers in this part of the region and comes up with ways to use their products.
Little: Is local sourcing more costly?
Taylor: Regenerative agriculture — grass-finished beef, in particular — is more expensive because, for one thing, cattle that aren’t fattened on feed lots grow slower on pasture. Our No. 6 [carbon-neutral] burger sells for $7.99, about $1.50 more than our standard burger. It’s a cost that many of our customers are willing to pay given the benefits — better flavor and nutrition, climate stability and soil health.
Little: Can your model for locally sourcing ingredients and supplies work as well in other regions?
Taylor: Yes, that’s on the table now. Because of the work we’ve done with the supply chain, employee training, and digital ordering and delivery, the company is well positioned to grow. It could grow region by region, with each region building networks of hundreds or thousands of growers and showcasing its own foods and flavors.
Little: Can you see a competitor like Shake Shack moving in this direction?
Taylor: Yes. I admire Shake Shack, and they’re now moving into our region. We want to be more of a partner as opposed to a competitor because we want as many businesses as possible purchasing local and regenerative products so our farmers and ranchers can scale up and we can grow. Chipotle, too, has begun to do good things in terms of the quality of their menu and product. The more we can individually do to support local producers, the more affordable and accessible their products become for us all.
Little: The Pacific Northwest has diverse farms and ranches and year-round growing seasons. Other regions like the Southwest are becoming increasingly hot and dry. How would you do local sourcing in these less arable regions?
Taylor: Great and difficult question. In many regions there’s an opportunity to revitalize local farming economies that have been lost to consolidation. But how do you revitalize regions with more and more difficult growing conditions? Could it be that in the Southwest they partner with Mexico to find ways to build regional food networks that cross national borders?
Little: Or will these regions turn to alternative products — plant-based and cellular meats that don’t require pasture? And source produce from indoor facilities like greenhouses and vertical farms?
Taylor: Exactly. These are the creative questions that industry leaders need to be asking and sitting down together to solve. The answers, inevitably, will have to address soil health and climate stability.
Little: What has it been like for you to be a woman CEO in the fast food industry?
Taylor: Even Burgerville was traditionally male-dominated in the leadership. They’ve had some great men, so I didn’t have issues with that at all. I’ve hired many women and I think it has helped us move quicker. Women often attend to relationships in different ways than men do, co-create and collaborate, which can help to move forward and get business done.
Little: How’s your team doing generally right now?
Taylor: We went from 1,500 employees down to 800 early in the pandemic, and we’re back up to 1,000. We’ve solidified the union contract and have supported our people to the highest degree that we can. It’s been a good learning curve. Our people are ready — really ready — for whatever’s next. They understand what resilience is.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• The New Agri-Giant Invading the U.S. Heartland: Javier Blas
• Why U.S. Grocery Shelves Are Looking Bare Again: Andrea Felsted
• Omicron Is Pushing Small Businesses to the Brink: Tim O’Brien
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University, and the author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”
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