Local Burger on a mission to serve up fast, healthy, local food
In her two years in business, Hilary Brown has gotten more publicity for her Local Burger restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas, than your average restaurateur can hope to get in twenty. But, then, Brown isn’t your average restaurateur, and Local Burger isn’t your average restaurant.
Brown is the 38-year-old dynamo behind the restaurant that serves healthy fast food (you read that right) made from locally sourced ingredients. That radical idea is behind all the interest.
A restaurant with a mission
I’m not much of a burger eater (regardless of what’s inside the bun), so I can’t claim to be a regular patron, but Brown’s restaurant has fascinated me since its sign went up back in 2005. I spoke with Brown the other day to see where Local Burger is headed, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that she and the restaurant aren’t standing still. Partly, that’s her personality, but partly that’s because Local Burger isn’t just a business, it’s a mission.
That mission emerged after Brown, who says she “was basically sickly all my life,” learned through a naturopathic physician that she had multiple food sensitivities and allergies, to eggs, dairy and gluten plus lots of additives. When she eliminated those foods, “It completely floored me how all these maladies I’d suffered all my life just disappeared,” she said.
A couple of years and much research later, Local Burger was born. She said finding local suppliers for the grass-fed meats she serves started at the Lawrence Farmers Market and was not particularly difficult. “It was a pretty organic process,” she said, smiling at her pun. (Organic products also figure prominently on the menu.) Despite the restaurant business’s infamous difficulty (though perhaps not quite as bad as people think), Brown has made it work. She attributes her success to having “a lot of love and passion” for her mission. She also attracts plenty of good will by sponsoring community activities and giving her suppliers and customers a double helping of meat sales, by selling frozen local meat directly to customers in the store.
On the menu
The menu customers see features burgers of many kinds, from beef to veggie and pork, elk, buffalo and lamb in between. All the meat is from local, pastured livestock — local meaning an average of 20 miles distant. Only the turkey burger isn’t locally sourced — yet. Brown notes that few small poultry processors exist any more, which means the local poultry producers can’t yet serve up the ground turkey she needs. But she and they are working on it.
Local Burger’s business menu, meanwhile, is headlined “growth,” with improved business processes and profitability on the side. Although the restaurant is surviving, thanks in no small part to Karen Black, who came on a year ago as business partner, Brown knows she can’t keep up her 70-hour-a-week commitment forever (especially since she’s expecting her first child later this year with husband Scott Allegrucci, her “local food dream guy”), and she wants more diners, as well as farmers and the environment, to benefit from Local Burger’s mission. Among the directions she’s headed:
- Veggie burgers. Brown wants to begin production of her veggie burgers for distribution in supermarkets. Her secret-recipe burgers, which are quite tasty, exclude the most common food allergens. That means they have no eggs, dairy, corn, gluten, soy, nuts or yeast. What do they have? Quinoa, millet, onion, garlic and sweet potato, for starters. She’s working with people at Kansas State University to learn more about labeling requirements, nutritional analysis and the like. “We already have quite a few supermarkets in the area and in Kansas City that have expressed interest,” Brown says. In addition, a customer from Los Angeles stands ready to order 10,000 for distribution there if Brown can get the capacity. She and Black are also seeking investors to help make it happen.
- Other outlets. Brown is looking into opening a restaurant in Kansas City, about 40 miles east of Lawrence. She’s very keen, though, on growing while “staying true to the mission of sourcing things locally and having healthy, real food that’s free of additives.” That means each Local Burger would have to respect its location and find its own local suppliers.
- Business practices. Brown’s especially excited that this month a successful natural foods entrepreneur from elsewhere (she’s not identifying the person for now) has volunteered to spend a few days with her without charge to help her identify inefficiencies and opportunities for growth.
Brown can’t say when her veggie burgers will available in supermarkets or when another restaurant will open, but she admits no doubts as to the inevitability of both. “We’re talking to a lot of smart people who know how to make that kind of thing happen, and it’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s a step-by-step process.”
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