The lunch crowd is out in full force on this gloomy Tuesday afternoon, and business at Carlsbad’s Elevation Burger is hopping. Still, there are a few spots left, and Ron Weinberg leads the way to a two-seater close to the windows. If there’s a best table in the house, he’s the one to ask: he owns the place.
Weinberg hasn’t always been in the burger business. “I was mostly involved in technology and financial services,” he explains. “But the capital market is something you’re not really directly connected to – I always wanted something I would be connected to more, and food was a good direction.” It’s a modest assessment, breezing past the Yale and USC graduate’s past work with Fortune 500 shortlisters like JP Morgan and Bank of America, but it’s also an efficient way to get to the heart of what interests him most in the here and now: burgers.
“I love burgers!” he crows with a smile. “When I came [to the United States], the first time I had Carl’s Jr. I thought that was the burger out of Pulp Fiction. I didn’t know why, but I had a feeling.” But, Royale with Cheese origins aside, it only took a few self-professed bellyaches before he found himself analyzing his franchising options in a different way. It was that change that led Weinberg to seal the first Elevation Burger franchising deal in California.
With a slogan of “Ingredients Matter!” the Virginia-based Elevation Burger is a franchise that explores a different facet of the “better burger” trend. French fries are cooked in olive oil and granola-y cookies are sold at the counter. Cane syrup soda flows from the soda fountain, and the bacon is organic, cut thick and cooked on site. Silverware is recyclable, and even all new locations strive to meet LEED building standards. But the biggest hook is the chain’s commitment to 100 percent grass fed, free range, USDA-certified organic beef ground fresh on the premises daily. It seems simple enough – but organic-focused franchises are rare and, in the midst of the current kerfuffle over what’s in prepackaged ground beef, the idea of freshly ground and formed patties is even rarer.
According to Weinberg, it’s exactly what the industry needs. With the organics market doubling almost yearly, he says, it’s a trend that is only going to keep growing. “We are in a great position to offer something that people need and want,” he says. “I think, from Food Inc. and King Corn, people are getting more aware about the really terrible things that we eat today. What happened to our food? From an economic point of view, [conventional farming] was a good thing in the 1970s – we enabled people to get food very cheaply. It had a lot of good positives to it. I cannot speak against it – prosperity came from it. But at the same time, I think at this point some things need to change.
But even if consumers and business owners like Weinberg are ready, the franchising world as a whole are slow to embrace it – I note that, while new chains are popping up and using their outlier of sustainability as a hook, existing chains seem reluctant to change. Weinberg notes that consumers are rarely happy when familiar flavors change, but also points out the other major factor in play.
“A lot of franchises are driven mostly by cost,” he explains. “But what I liked about [Elevation Burger] is that it’s a compromise. We’re not the cheapest – In-N-Out is definitely much cheaper – but at the same time we offer very good value. Most restaurants that offer even grass fed, not even talking about 100 percent certified organic, will cost about a dollar to a dollar and a half more. But I think that people are starting to understand: when you start to eat here on a regular basis, you realize that you don’t have to eat food to feel bad. There are other ways to feel when you eat food.”
My own tray stands ready to test that theory, loaded up with a full meal plus cookies and a milkshake. Short-circuited by choices, I opt for the coffee shake blended with black cherries – a curious combination indeed, but still a success considering that I keep coming back for more spoonfuls until it’s gone. For the burger, I go for the “Half the Guilt Burger, layering a patty of grass-fed beef with the vegan Veggie Burger #2 which tastes of carrots and corn and freshness – then I smother it all with cheddar, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, balsamic mustard, and thick chewy strips of that freshly prepared bacon. It’s a lot for anyone to handle. But if there’s one thing no one can deny, it’s that this is one flavorful chunk of beef. In spite of the glut of toppings I tend to prefer, I find myself tearing off stray chunks from the edges to savor without competition, juicy and unfettered.
It’s not a surprising reaction for Weinberg – rather, it’s just another case for food made from organic and sustainable sources. “I used to cook a lot,” he says. “To make a soup from scratch, they tell you to add some beef bouillon or some chicken bouillon. Why? Because beef today and chicken today – because of the way they’re grown and [produced], they don’t have flavor. You have to add those flavors. So going back there is an important step, and I don’t think it’s going away.”
“We have a large amount of customers who are over 55, and those guys come here because this is the way they remember beef used to taste,” he adds. “What can you do better than to give somebody the taste of their childhood food?” If this trend continues, emerging franchises like Elevation Burger could wind up providing the tastes of choice for the next generation as well.