Last year, McDonald’s started testing fresh, not frozen, ground-beef patties at some Dallas locations. More than two years ago, Carl’s Jr. introduced an “all-natural” burger with hormone- and antibiotic-free beef sourced from grass-fed and free-range cattle. And since its launch in 2005, the Arlington-based Elevation Burger chain has touted its organic ground beef from similarly pampered cattle.
As much as those developments represent upgrades in the hamburger world, they also reveal the industry’s glaring blind spot: Burger joints, large or small, don’t talk much about the sources of their beef. They may say their meat comes from North America or the United States, but they don’t drill down to specific farms or even to a specific state. They’re the stubborn holdouts of the locavore movement.
Which is why the recently opened Red Apron Burger Bar near Dupont Circle immediately stood out in the ground-beef market. The partnership between Neighborhood Restaurant Group and Red Apron Butcher promises to source all its beef from Virginia producers, including Leaping Waters Farm in Alleghany Springs, which raises Ancient White Park cattle exclusively on grass. If you’ve never had a burger made from the meat of grass-fed cattle, you’re in for a surprise: The patties boast a deeply beefy, mineral-like flavor, so different from the buttery roundness of grain-fed steers.
“We have both a grass-fed burger for the new place as well as a grass-fed, grain-finished burger,” says Nathan Anda, the chef, butcher and creative force behind Red Apron. “You can tell both of them have a good amount of age, and both of them are bringing more of a beefiness, more of a steak flavor, as opposed to kind of the taste of the grill or the taste of the flattop.”
It has taken Anda years to develop the network of regional farmers who supply his Washington-area butcher shops with all-natural, humanely raised meats. Even so, he couldn’t have launched his Burger Bar without the help of Ryan Ford, co-owner of Seven Hills Food in Lynchburg, Va. Ford is a wholesaler in fresh Virginia meats, which doesn’t begin to explain all the work required to build a system with such a regional focus.
A co-founder of the Organic Butcher retail shops in Charlottesville (now closed) and McLean (still thriving), Ford moved into the wholesale business about two years ago, when he and his investors spent millions of dollars to renovate the old Dinner Bell Meat Products processing plant in Lynchburg. Ford decided he would help remedy a problem that he encountered as a retail butcher: a lack of fresh, locally raised meats to feed a growing market.
But as Ford explains, it’s not simple to transform a system that has historically catered to the commodity meat market. Virginia ranchers traditionally have raised cattle for giant corporate feedlots and processors, receiving a fraction of what they could earn by selling directly to chefs and retail shops. But the slaughterhouse, processing and distribution systems are not designed for small-scale, regional production. If ranchers wanted to sell directly to those willing to pay more, they typically had to arrange it themselves, via farmers markets and the like, often at exorbitant costs.
Enter Ford and Seven Hills Food, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected slaughterhouse and processing plant that opened in September 2015. To create this regional system to process and distribute Virginia meats, Ford has had to find farmers willing not only to work with him but also to change their agricultural practices to improve almost everything, from animal welfare to the quality of the meat. Then Ford has had to find chefs such as Anda at Red Apron who are willing to pay a premium for grass-fed, grain-finished Black Angus beef, dry-aged for at least 10 days.
“We’re laying the groundwork for something that will take years to build,” Ford says.
In its first year, Seven Hills processed 1,000 head of cattle. Ford says he’s operating at only 10 percent of capacity and that there are plenty of Virginia cattle farmers who could move their animals into his system.
Which is potentially good news for Anda. While the chef says he wants to perfect his debut burger joint before entertaining thoughts of expansion, it seems clear that he and the Neighborhood Restaurant Group have bigger plans for Red Apron Burger Bar. Maybe even Burger Bars scattered along the Northeast Corridor, each tied into regional beef suppliers.
“I’ve done a lot of traveling from Philly to New York,” says James Tracey, Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s culinary director, who used to work for the Philadelphia-based Starr Restaurants group.
“I think the cows are there at this point,” Tracey says about a potential Northeast expansion. “The farmers would be happy. They could do more, and they’ve said they can do more.”
Of course, it’s that kind of expansionist dreaming that can doom a concept, too. Just ask Mark Bucher, founder of BGR: The Burger Joint. When Bucher opened his debut BGR in Bethesda in 2008, all he wanted to do was sell gourmet, steakhouse-style burgers in a casual, counter-service environment.
Bucher worked with Danny Alahouzos, co-owner of Prime Foods in Hyattsville, to create a custom hamburger blend for BGR. They took prime cuts (or near-prime when the higher grade wasn’t available) of brisket, short ribs and sirloin (sourced from grass-fed, grain-finished Pennsylvania cattle) and mixed them “lightly and gently” with fat to arrive at the desired blend, Alahouzos says. The burger was a hit with critics and the public.
But BGR’s investors, Bucher says, wanted more. They wanted more stores. They wanted to franchise into markets outside Washington. Within a few years, the BGR concept had grown too large for the boutique operation that was Prime Foods.
“We had other obligations,” Alahouzos says. “I couldn’t tell my regular customers, ‘I’m sorry. There’s this burger place that’s taking over our place.’ We had to get help doing it.”
BGR turned to a large beef-grinding facility in New York, where Bucher says he worried he was losing control of the quality. “Every now and then, I’d taste the burger and I’d say, ‘Something’s not right,’ ” recalls Bucher, who divested himself of his BGR ownership in 2014. Plus, Alahouzos adds, once a company reaches a certain size, the owners inevitably start focusing more on price points than on meat quality. That, in turn, forces companies to move away from regional suppliers and into the commodity beef markets.
It’s not easy to determine where major hamburger chains buy their beef. Of the companies contacted for this story — including Five Guys, Elevation, Shake Shack, Umami Burger and others — only a few responded. A spokeswoman for CKE Restaurants, parent company of Carl’s Jr., emailed to say its natural beef comes from Australia, largely from JBS Australia’s Great Southern branded beef. A McDonald’s representative likewise emailed to say most of the chain’s 100 percent beef is obtained from ranches around the United States.
“While we remain one of the largest purchasers of U.S. beef, we also import USDA-inspected beef from New Zealand, Australia and Canada,” the McDonald’s spokeswoman, Terri Hickey, adds in the same email.
Major growth, of course, doesn’t automatically cheapen a hamburger chain’s beef supply. With its influx of public investment money, Shake Shack has expanded to more than 100 locations, including outlets in South Korea, Russia, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Such a vast network of restaurants makes it impossible to source meat locally in each case, says Jeffrey Amoscato, the company’s vice president of supply chain and menu innovation. (The exception, he says, is the Shake Shack at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., which relies exclusively on in-state beef.)
Instead, the company buys only a specific kind of beef: whole cuts from grass-fed and grain-finished Angus steers. The cuts are sourced from the states of the upper Midwest, Amoscato says. Shake Shack, he adds, doesn’t shop for meat based on price.
“We’re really just looking for the best quality first; then we’ll find a way to make it work” with price, Amoscato says. “If it’s got really good flavor, it will sell.”
Amoscato’s point is important to those who follow the hamburger market: Local beef does not necessarily mean better beef. Although local grass-fed beef may be better for the environment — grass-fed-cattle farms have some advantages over industrial systems, and vice versa, depending on how well managed each operation is — it doesn’t mean local beef will always be more flavorful than the commodity stuff shipped from the Midwest. The principals behind the Red Apron Burger Bar understand that.
“For me, just buying local to ‘buy local’ doesn’t make sense,” says Tracey, NRG’s culinary director. “It has to be about quality. At the end of the day, people don’t care that much. They do care, but if they don’t like what it tastes like, they’re not going to come back.”
Will Red Apron Burger Bar patrons like the flavor of grass-fed beef from Virginia? Will they care about the provenance of the beef at all? The future of this ambitious project seems to hinge on the answers to those two questions.
Red Apron Burger Bar, 1323 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-524-5210. redapronburgerbar.com. Grass-fed, grain-finished Black Angus burgers, $5.85 for a single patty and $8.95 for a double patty; grass-fed Ancient White Park burgers, $7.35 for a single patty and $11.35 for a double patty.