Issue Date: April 18, 2008
By RICH HEFFERN
Local Burger, a small restaurant in downtown Lawrence, has reimagined the lowly hamburger, hot dog and French fry.
Why should tasty, wholesome food be regularly accessible only to the privileged few? asked owner-entrepreneur Hilary Brown, who opened the restaurant in 2005. Why shouldnt everyone eat clean, healthy food?
In a bright, airy location on Vermont Street, Brown and her staff use local, mostly organic ingredients, drawing on a network of nearby small, independent ranchers and farmers.
Burgers are made from grass-fed beef, bison or elk -- meats that have less fat than conventional grain-fed beef, minus also the presence of growth hormones and the antibiotics necessitated by the crowded conditions on the feedlots where grain-fed animals are fattened for slaughter.
Were a country that boasts of producing cheap food and serving it fast but its too often at the expense of the environment, small family farms and our own health. When we shop and eat out we thereby subsidize a dysfunctional food system, Brown said.
A growing farm-to-table connection that emphasizes buying locally has developed, translating into huge crowds at farmers markets and locally grown labels showing up in supermarkets. Local Burger is another link in that connection.
Bon Appetit magazine featured it recently as its No. 10 most eco-friendly restaurant in the nation.
The average food item in America travels 1,500 miles from source to table. When the food is sourced locally, youre cutting down on the fossil fuels trucks have to burn in order to travel that far, Brown said.
Whats more, Local Burger buys only from farms that use sustainable, humane husbandry practices.
We make sure our meat sources raise their animals according to their natural, intended diets and dont use chemicals, hormones or antibiotics, and they dont mistreat the animals, Brown said. When animals are raised on unnatural diets as they are in the conventional system, the meat is less nutritious because it has less vitamins, Omega 3 and fatty acids.
The restaurant recycles cans and other items its staff uses in the kitchen and composts all of its organic waste.
The staff of 20 includes many students from the University of Kansas located in Lawrence.
Local Burger is the realization of a dream engendered at a young age. Like any other kid, I grew up eating processed food, greasy fries and tater tots, Brown said. When I was 18, I read a book by John Robbins, Diet for a New America. Before that, it had never crossed my mind where the food that was on the table was coming from or how it was brought to our table.
The business plan she devised for Local Burger emphasized the fast-food restaurant style. I figured fast food was the way to spread the message across many markets and socioeconomic groups. I wanted to get the blue-collar worker coming in for an elk burger. I also wanted a place that was attuned to childrens food allergies and intolerances.
Whats found in most franchise places, fast-food joints and even in some high-end independent restaurants are products and attitudes that only serve the bottom line, Brown said. Rarely do you find a place that even considers, much less honors, every aspect of the food production process.
The restaurants menu features a variety of burgers: grass-fed-only beef from Homespun Hill Farm in nearby Baldwin, Kan.; buffalo from Sunset Ridge Bison in Clinton, Kan.; elk from Rocky Hills Elk Ranch in Winchester; pork burgers from Metsker Farms in Lawrence; a veggie burger, and all-beef hot dogs from Good Natured Family Farms, a Kansas-Missouri cooperative.
The burger setups -- lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle -- are all organic and purchased locally, except in the winter when produce is generally unavailable.
Side dishes include the Were Not in Kansas Anymore Salad, so-named because it includes hijiki, a sea vegetable harvested far away; a quinoa-millet pilaf; tamari-seasoned brown rice and sunflower seeds; and Progressive Potatoes, air-baked red potatoes deep-fried in coconut oil.
Theres also a vegan Caesar salad and buffalo chili (Lone Star Buffalo). Specialties are fresh juices and smoothies made with coconut milk or soy milk, with supplement options of flax seed, chia seed, Brazil nuts, walnuts and coconut oil. House-made drinks include lime water sweetened with stevia, an herb.
Prices are just a little higher than those found in a conventional hamburger joint.
Brown had to develop new delivery systems to implement her concept. Most fast-food restaurants receive all-in-one frozen-food deliveries from big companies. She talked with growers in the area about her idea early on, and now deals with more than 40 growers and other suppliers on a weekly and first-name basis.
She said some suppliers have invested in new equipment to expand their operations since they now have a dependable market.
Almost all of our farmers and ranchers have another job, some commuting long distances to the big city, then squeezing the farming in around their job and the commute. It says something about the state of the local family farm in America.
One of her grass-fed beef suppliers, Debbie Yarnell of Homespun Hill Farm, told NCR: Local Burger helped my farm become viable. The fact that Hilarys menu board lets customers know where the beef comes from catapulted my farm name recognition high. Its easier to make follow-up sales at the farmers market, for example, because folks know theyve already eaten our meat and liked it. The opportunities for Midwestern farmers and ranchers directly correlate with the increase in the number of food businesses emphasizing the local connection.
Newspapers regularly carry alarming stories about mad cow disease, bird flu in chicken, genetically modified food and more. The latest beef scare, the January recall of over 180,000 pounds of ground beef patties contaminated with E. coli, was, unfortunately, good marketing for our restaurant, Brown said.
Last year Brown produced Localize Me, a film program in response to the popular 2004 film Supersize Me, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonalds food for 30 days.
We took Daniel Fisher, a 29-year-old guy who was around 100 pounds overweight with a family history of diabetes. He was basically addicted to fast food. We fed him on our food for 30 days. Every morning he drank one of our smoothies. Daniel lost 23 pounds and his cholesterol levels went from 285 down to 166. His doctor was amazed at the change he made in a month, Brown said.
Local Burger has been mentioned this year in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Body & Soul, and its one of three business featured in Big Ideas for a Small Planet, a documentary series on the Sundance Channel that focuses on environmental issues.
The restaurant just added a local meat market on Wednesdays, where Lawrence customers can buy directly from producers.
Brown said she and her partners are considering opening their first franchise in nearby Kansas City. Id like to open Local Burger in different markets with sourcing tailored to each particular area, she said.
Expanding the restaurants guiding concept is a byproduct of the passion she feels about changing the way we eat. When you eat something really good, you notice the good energy in that food. It tastes so good. Thats what keeps our regular customers coming back.
Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008
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