The Fast-Food Industry Wants to Tell You a Story About Its Burgers

With sales in decline, chains are improving ingredients and pushing new narratives about transparency and quality.

(Photo: Courtesy Carl’s Jr.)

Jan 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

I ate an excellent burger while visiting my parents in Fairfield, Iowa, over the holidays. Expertly cooked to an actual pink medium-rare, a rarity even in the best Los Angeles restaurants, the patty was made from beef—or rather, one cow—that was born, raised, slaughtered, butchered, prepared, and eaten all within the bounds of Jefferson County. Later in the week, I was back at the bar and restaurant, The Cider House, which was recently opened by a number of people I grew up with. After taking pickle-back shots to celebrate my sister’s birthday, Clint Stevenson, one of the owners, showed me a picture of the cow on his phone. He told me about the time it spent on grass and then the series of grains they used to develop marbling before scheduling an appointment with the roving USDA inspector at the custom processing facility in nearby Packwood, ultimately yielding 700 pounds of ground beef.

Driving to Des Moines on the way to the airport, I saw a billboard for Carl’s Jr.’s “all-natural” burger, which the chain is touting as a first in the industry: grass-fed beef from cattle raised without hormones, steroids, or antibiotics. While Andrew Puzder, the chain’s CEO, probably didn’t meet the new Carl’s Jr. beef supplier in fourth grade, which is when Stevenson met the farmer who raised that cow for The Cider House, the big marketing push for the new burger in many ways mirrors what’s happening at The Cider House and countless other small independent restaurants that want to tell you a story about the food they serve.

"This demand for fresh and real is on the rise," Greg Creed, CEO of Yum Brand Foods, which owns Taco Bell and KFC, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. In remarks made to analysts and investors last month, Creed said the Yum restaurants need to be more transparent about the ingredients they use and to decrease the use of preservatives. Considering McDonald’s big transparency push, the success of chains like Chipotle, and insurgents like chef Roy Choi, who are looking to compete with the fast-food companies on price, flavor, and style while serving healthier ingredients, Yum is late to the party.

When McDonald’s launched its “Our Food Your Questions” campaign in October, I wrote that the Grant Imahara-starring videos showing how McRibs and McNuggets are made had more to do with narrative than with transparency. Sure, we’re seeing how these items are made, but more so we’re giving these ubiquitous, cheap, nondescript foods a backstory—imbuing them with something more than fryer grease and a low price tag. It’s the corporate equivalent of a restaurant owner showing customers a picture of the cow they ate for dinner.

With both the cult of the chef and the rise in health and environmental awareness to cope with, fast-food restaurants are being forced to continue to change. Judging by the dismal sales suffered by McDonald’s for a few months last year, picking up on the occasional ingredient trend and engaging in the game of calorie-loading one-upmanship that’s defined fast food in recent years is no longer enough to stay viable. Hence the industry-wide scramble to be more like Chipotle—or The Cider House.

Despite the more than 250,000 acres of Jefferson County farmland that surround my hometown, the pleasure of eating a delicious (and, at $12 with fries, relatively affordable) burger made from local beef is a new one. Judging by the packed bar and tables—and the number of people I heard around town talking about the burger: “Did you hear they use the whole animal?”—I’m not the only one who thoroughly enjoyed it. But the change goes beyond popular taste. While fast food does what it can to change industrial supply chains to produce enough antibiotic-free chicken or grass-fed beef to revamp menus, small restaurants are looking to regional resources that have long been available to them but were so often ignored.

I saw the same thing happening in Iowa City, where many restaurant menus now note that they serve chicken raised from nearby Amish farms, where the standards of industrial agriculture are, alongside combustion engines and electricity, ignored wholesale. It’s a stark change from the days when the only sign of local agriculture you’d see at restaurants was a bit of boosterism for the state’s $4.1 billion pork industry. To be sure, industrial agriculture is still alive and well in Iowa, and the corn, soy, and meat it produces remain the lifeblood of fast food. But for every restaurant buying beef from the multigenerational family farm down the way, and for every fast-food chain inching toward a mass-market system of showing drive-through customers a snapshot of the sustainably raised cattle they’re about to eat, that dominance will slowly erode.