Fast food’s race to produce better-for-you chicken is about to see a most-unlikely leader leap to the front of the pack: Elevation Burger.
The mostly organic fast-casual chain, with just 33 domestic locations, is on the brink of one-upping not only McDonald’s, but the entire fast-food industry.
The Falls Church, Va.-based chain’s move into organic chicken this month will likely soon make it the nation’s top fast-food seller of organic chicken. Elevation Burger already ranks as the country’s biggest fast-food seller of organic beef.
“Others are talking about it, but we’re doing it,” boasts Rick Altizer, CEO of Elevation Burger, a former McDonald’s regional executive who joined Elevation Burger one year ago. “We are forcing the world’s leading fast-food chain to change the way it operates.”
That might not be entirely hype. Earlier this month, McDonald’s jolted the fast-food world by announcing that over the next two years it will stop using chicken treated with antibiotics commonly used for humans. McDonald’s is responding to growing pressure from consumers who don’t want antibiotics in their food. Chick-fil-A plans to drop antibiotics from its chicken over five years. Chicken giants Tyson and Perdue both have ramped-up production of antibiotic-free chicken.
But this movement by Elevation Burger towards organic chicken — raised not only without antibiotics, but without pesticides or hormones — appears to be a watershed moment for the organic food movement in the U.S. Consider: Some 45% of American’s say they actively try to include organic foods in their diets, according to a recent Gallup poll.
“Going organic isn’t easy,” says Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. “We hope this serves as an example of how people can usually find a way to do the right thing if they persist.” Overall organic poultry sales hit $401 million in 2013, a 9% increase vs. 2012, says the trade group.
Of course, organic costs more. Elevation’s new Grilled Organic Chicken Sandwich fetches a hefty $5.95, and that’s without fries or a drink. At many McDonald’s, you can bag an entire combo meal for that.
McDonald’s not alone nixing antibiotics
The first Elevation Burger was opened in 2005 by Hans and April Hess, after the couple couldn’t find a “healthy” burger they could feel good about feeding their kids.
Their newest challenge: finding enough organic-certified chicken. Only a fraction of livestock raised in the U.S., about 0.4%, comes from organic farms.
“It isn’t like you can call up (food distributor) Sysco and get it,” says Michael Berger, vice president of supply chain for Elevation Burger. “We had to go farm by farm.”