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Small Business, Big Impact: Epic Burger

By Anthony Todd in Food on Oct 25, 2012 4:00PM


In this new series, we talk with small business owners that are combining their buying power with their principles to make a difference in the world.

It's all well and good for a fancy restaurant to buy a few ingredients from a local farmer, but in order for sustainability to stick, it has to be scaled up. Businesses with multiple locations and thousands of customers, at all different levels of cost, must find ways to make sustainability pay. A shining local example of this is Epic Burger, the local burger chain that makes sustainable sourcing so central, it's on the first sign you see when you walk in the door. We sat down with David Friedman, founder and owner of Epic Burger, to learn about what he is doing to change what the American burger shop looks like.

Chicagoist: Why open a sustainable small business? Why is it worth the trouble.

DF: I'm a chef by trade, and I worked as a chef in high-end restaurants. Then I migrated towards product development and food manufacturing, and that's where I got to learn about industrialized food. I got to know the meat business . . . intimately. As a chef, that started to not feel great to me. A lot of the food I was producing was low-end processed food that I wouldn't consume myself and couldn't be particularly proud of.

When I looked around the landscape, I saw an opportunity to bring all-natural foods to a bigger audience.

C: Why burgers?

DF: That's really the big idea around Epic, to introduce people to affordable all-natural foods through a familiar product. That's why I chose burgers and fries. I thought it was such an iconic food item. I love everybody's different take on the burger. What I wanted to do was introduce a better burger on a large scale. That's why I chose to go with a really simple menu, focused, very few moving parts, in order to have a concept that I could easily scale up. When I looked at the large players, nobody was providing high-integrity food. And I thought that as people become more aware of how their food is raised and processed, they would welcome Epic.

Epic Burger uses all-natural beef, humanely raised, without hormones and antibiotics. Some buzzwords are missing - the beef isn't grass fed, and it's not "local."

C: Tell us why you chose that "level" of sustainable meat?

DF: The large beef producers are becoming savvy enough to realize that this is where the market is going, and that they need to get into it. A lot of the large beef companies have divisions of all natural and organic beef. Our beef comes from four different ranchers out in Nebraska and Colorado. But it's processed through large beef processors. To do it with any kind of scale, you can't go to one rancher with a few hundred acres.

Really, the decision point was "Can this person supply me with large quantities." Initially I reached out to small ranchers, and they just didn't have the capability! I had to figure out who can supply me and who can do it in a way that meets my standards and the ethos of the company. The original concept was going to be called Gigantic Organic. Everything was going to be locally sourced and organic, but when I crunched the numbers and learned what I'd have to charge people, it wasn't truly sustainable.

At Epic Burger, the eggs are cage-free and organic, and the chicken is natural and free of additives. The turkey, however, is not - a concession to the realities of the market.

DF: The only thing that isn't all-natural is the turkey burger. I can't find a source for it! Someone will figure it out - it might be me. My dream is that Epic burger gets big enough that I can demand all-natural turkey. That I can go through enough product to get somebody to raise and process the product.

That's the dream for all my products. As well as my packaged goods; I don't use any petroleum based packaging, and I pay twice as much as anyone else. But as the demand goes up, the price will go down and we can start to work with people. We will provide a big enough demand that it incentives them. This is a long-term project for me.

C: Where is Epic going to go next?

DF: Most of the locations are in downtown - the furthest one out is at Old Orchard Mall. I'd love to go into neighborhoods like Bucktown and Andersonville, but I don't think there is the volume. I think the suburbs are the next frontier. I think that's something that i really want to test next: how the suburban market will react to Epic Burger.

C: Is there an issue with consumer education? Do customers ever complain about prices, not knowing why things cost what they do?

DF: I think it's really important. People need to understand why they are paying a few dollars extra. These products cost more. I continue to craft ways to do that education, but to not become too preachy or to become the church of all things organic, because that's not what I want Epic to be. I want it to be a great tasting burger, and "by the way here's why it's great."

I'm not positioning myself in the fast food category. I'm positioning myself as fast casual - Panera, Chipotle, Corner Bakery. The people that are pure value-seekers are not going to be Epic burger customers. I'd like them to be, but some people it doesn't make sense. They can't afford it.

It's something I continually have to update and revise. What is going to make the concept work is an educated consumer. The mission is really to increase people's food IQ. Once they realize that what we are serving costs more, and the reasons why, I think they'll be willing to pay. And really, at the end of the day, the proof is on the plate and how good it tastes. That's really what's bringing people back.

C: Why is it worth it for you to go through all of this trouble just to serve a better burger?

DF: It's the whole reason for being. That's what gets me out of bed in the morning. Consumers in the marketplace deserve it. I don't think you should have to be wealthy to eat a non-processed hamburger. I think that the more people realize what's in the food, the more they will eat at Epic. There are so many dirty little secrets in food manufacturing, and that's what really got me back into what I truly do, which is making simple, high quality food.

Epic Burger currently has seven locations in Chicago. To learn more about the rules for their products and sourcing, or to find a location near you, check their website.