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Guest Blog: Is an Organic Burger Necessarily Eco-Friendly?

25 February 2009 2,914 views 12 Comments

Guest Blogger Laura S. reviews TerraBurger below. To learn more about Laura, feel free to read the intro for her first guest blogging appearance back in January, when she told us about her attempt at making gnocchi from scratch.

logo_001I’d never heard of the Austin-owned TerraBurger before today, and I had no idea one just opened up on the Drag.
My friend Megan suggested we check it out because of their organic, eco-friendly approach. I was all for it – like Jodi, I’ll gladly give my lunch money to a restaurant with a global conscience.
Two weeks into business, TerraBurger was in full swing. We had to share a table with a guy still wearing a biker’s helmet who was eating alone, and there were people waiting for tables to open up. Our food came quickly, which was a good start to the meal. But overall, I was disappointed with the offerings.
Megan and I were torn between trying their salads or a burger, so we decided to split one of each and try an order of their sweet potato fries. The veggie burger was standard – nothing to write home about – and the sweet potato fries were forgettable, too. The salad came with blue corn tortilla chips, jicama, corn and black beans. I thought the salad was on the smaller side for the $6 they charge – it was about the size of a Wendy’s salad, and reminded me of one. To top things off, the jicama in the salad was frozen. Call me high maintenance, but I don’t like my food straight out of the freezer and onto a plate.
terraburgerOn our way out, they were giving away samples of their frozen yogurt. We shared the plain (ick) and the coffee (better). The best thing about them were the few blueberries on top, which were thankfully thawed out.
I offered to blog about TerraBurger because, as of today, I’m not sure Jodi should waste her time trying it. I hope they start thawing their salad toppings and can learn how to make a meaner sweet potato fry. And I know you have to be willing to pay more for quality ingredients, but I thought $9.90 for a veggie burger and small fries was kind of on the pricey side (I didn’t even get a drink).
It would be nice to see a lunch spot with such a great business approach do well in this town. Terra Burger does offer three kinds of trash disposal (plastic, paper and other), converts their cooking oil into biofuel, and even rounds down to the nearest nickel because pennies now cost more to make than they’re worth. These are all measures worth applauding, and I wish more restaurants would get on board. But for now, if I want a good quality burger – veggie or otherwise – I’ll stick with P. Terry’s or Hut’s.

image_8509062This is Jodi again and I feel like a jerk saying this but while TerraBurger is on it’s way to doing the right thing for the environment by only providing organic food, I believe there is a bit of greenwashing* going on here.

For example, their organic beef comes from a Wisconsin supplier — that’s a long way to drive and lots of fossil fuel being burned for that meat to make the journey. Also, a report from Science News (thanks @bittman) argues that beef produces 19 kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram served; that grass-fed beef is worse — yes, worse — for global warming than feed-lot beef.

While I limit my intake of meat, I am by no means a vegetarian or the model of how someone can live the most sustainable and earth-friendly life. However, I’m not trying to present myself that way. If a company is going to hang their hat on being “sustainable,” or “green,” — they need to be prepared to back that claim up.

*For more on reenwashing, check out Austin company EnviroMedia’s Greenwashing Index.

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  • Double Tonic

    I’ve heard the same about grass-fed beef. So hard to know these days so lately, I figure getting the veggie burger takes the confusion out of the equation. (And I’m no vegetarian but also just trying to limit my intake.)

  • Anonymous

    Grass-fed beef may not be the most environmentally friendly, but it tastes better, is better for the animal and seems to make a better quality meat.
    I don’t think I’d be quick to base a burger restaurant on their veggie burgers, but I will agree that w/out a drink almost $10 is a LOT for what you got. Frozen veggies makes me sad. I want to think more of this place-I must go check it out for myself.

    Thanks for writing this!

  • ivette

    Hmmm. You know, I was actually going to try this place, but maybe not so much anymore. What a dissapointment. Frozen Jicama? Really?

  • Adam Norwood

    I’ll second Laura’s opinion: our lunch group went to TerraBurger last Friday full of optimism but left feeling disappointed. There’s a lot to find admirable about their operation: their promise of using solar where possible to heat water, commitment to recycling and use of degradable vegetable-based plastics, organic food, and the rest of the green laundry list. The service was snappy and we got our food seemingly within seconds of ordering. We were also glad to see the place getting robust business right after opening — maybe a good sign that they’ll be able to break the cycle of restaurants coming and going on the Drag.

    The heartbreak came with the food, though: the beef burgers were tasty, but the veggie burger was reportedly boring (“good intentions but passable taste” — I gather they just use Amy’s brand patties), and everyone agreed that the fries (regular and sweet potato alike) were a soggy, greasy, tasteless mess. The $10 combo meal didn’t feel like a good value at that point.

    If this were a normal greasy burger joint, I might question someone complaining about a veggie burger or salad they ordered. But as an environment-friendly, ostensibly health-conscious place, you’d think that they’d want to offer an tastier array of more sustainable food like veggie burgers and salads. By all accounts that I’ve read, beef has a pretty hefty impact on the environment, whether its grass-fed or not. (n.b.: I’m a meat-eater, but I do think it’s good to be mindful of where your food comes from and that moderation is a good thing.) I wish that more of their suppliers were local, or at least based in Texas.

    Didn’t mean to turn this into a rant, considering that it netted a 3/5 rating for our group. I think it’s because we had such high hopes, and because I want the place to do better.

  • James Hunter

    This just isn’t fair. After reading this, I went and asked my friend who works there and they told me that by no means do they use frozen salad toppings. He said that everything they use in the salads and burgers is fresh cut DAILY. He is a prep cook there and spends hours cutting produce, slicing cheese and making hamburger patties.
    Furthermore, I ate there the other day and for $9.90 I got a drink, fries AND a delicious burger. This may still seem pricy but the burger was enormous, hot and tasty and my girlfriend had the veggie burger and said it was the best she has had to date in Austin (aside from her mom’s homemade veggie patties). I don’t mind paying a bit more for good quality, that’s why I shop at Whole Foods.
    Apparently they have fixed the fry problem that you experienced because mine were crispy and delicious. Someone sitting across from me had a salad and it was huge.
    I’m only writing this because it seems like you are bashing these guys for no reason. I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever wrote this blog works for P Terry’s (who doesn’t offer organic burgers by the way, only tomatoes). Bottom line is, you should give these guys a shot. They seem like they really care about what they are trying to do.

  • Jodi

    Hi James,

    Thank you for writing and for clarifying about the fresh veggies. I wonder if they just keep their walk-in extra cold and that’s why the jicama tasted frozen to Laura (who wrote this post).

    This is my blog and I haven’t yet been to TerraBurger but I must admit that after reading Laura’s post and Adam’s comment, I don’t feel the need to rush out right away to try it myself.

    However, I do recognize that they are a new business and are still working out the kinks so if I start to hear good things, I’ll probably check it out.

    Until then, I’m heading to Mickey D’s when I have a craving for some yummy fast food. At least I’ll know that my fries will be crispy.

    Thank you very much for writing!

  • Laura S.

    Dear James,

    My name is Laura Stromberg. I work for a political advocacy organization. I do not work for P Terry’s. One quick Google search would confirm this to be true and, hopefully, assuage your rather odd paranoia.

    I shop at Whole Foods, too, and as I said in my post I’m also happy to pay more for quality food. But it has to be worth the extra cost. I didn’t find TerraBurger to be.

    And the best veggie burger in town is actually at a chain called Houston’s, in my humble opinion.

  • Mike K

    This could be simply a matter of getting the kinks out. According to dates the first couple reviews came in in February and the last one was in March. Most restaurants go through an initial period where they need to fine tune. Truthfully with the first couple reviews so bad i am in no hurry to go, but that may explain the differences. Then again, given only one good review “even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then”.

  • David Norman

    I went for lunch last week and thought it was pretty good. I had the beef burger, regular potato fries and a Mexican Coke. True, the fries were not crispy, but they tasted good, you could tell they were from fresh cut potatoes. The burger I found surprisingly good. When it comes to meat, and especially beef, I don’t count on organic certification to equal better flavor as I expect from say a carrot or stalk of celery. The truth is, most organic animal production methods barely differ from conventional, other than the fact that their feedstuffs must be certified organic. No where at Terra Burger did they say their beef was grassfed, so my assumption is that it is grain finished. But it did have great, beefy flavor and for that I would return.
    I found the link to the article on the carbon footprint of meat interesting. I wish I had more time right now to follow up on the grassfed v. grainfed carbon part. I think some assumptions seem off on the grassfed part — namely that pasture that is highly managed requires renovation and fertilization (implying chemical fertilizer). Well managed (intensively managed) pasture is fertilized by the cattle, has a much higher organic matter and microbial content, has a diverse plant mixture. Grazing cattle maintain and improve properly managed pasture land without additional inputs or manipulation by the farmer and I believe, help to fix more carbon. Growing, harvesting and processing feed grains, even with organic cultivation, does not do this. I hope I can look into the analysis referred to in the link further sometime soon.
    My other observation at Terra Burger was a sign right in the entrance making the claim that organic foods have been shown to contain more nutrients (I am paraphrasing here) than conventional. My immediate response to that was that it doesn’t necessarily hold true with organic beef due to the above mentioned production methods and grain feeding. There are definite differences (with plenty of debate on their significance for human health) between grain and grass fed beef, but not so much for grainfed organic v. conventional beef. I know the USDA would never allow that claim to be made for organic meats sold retail.
    In the meantime, I am going to try another Terra Burger and see if they have improved the fries.
    BTW, my wife agrees about the vegeburger at Houston’s, though she also likes the one at Billy’s on Burnet (she’s a meat eater who just likes a vegeburger now and again)

  • Don

    Laura & Jodi:

    I'm a partner at TerraBurger and at the risk of sounding smarmy, it's always disappointing to us when any of our food doesn't live up to expectations.

    I'm not making excuses (well, maybe just a little), but we've been open 10 days; we tried to do a "soft" opening so things would happen slowly so we could gear up as things picked up, but we weren't afforded that luxury as we got slammed when we opened the doors, so it was hectic for awhile as we found ourselves understocked and undermanned. Our customer comment cards, however, where overwhelmingly positive. The only occasional negative was that some of our batches of fries were on the soggy side (this was a legitimate complaint…some were), this partially due to the vagaries of using organic potatoes. This has been remedied and our hand cut fries are now as good as they come-golden brown, crunchy, hot and potatoey…come see for yourself and if you don't like 'em your money back! :)

    I can also add that ALL of our organic produce, including our jicama, is never bought frozen, and much of it is bought locally, so I cannot explain your "frozen" jicama, but we we want you to feel like you got a good salad for your money, always.

    The suggestion that we are "greenwashing" really hurts because it couldn't be further from the truth. We examine everything we do and try to do it in the most sustainable fashion possible. We're trying hard–very hard–to do the right things in that regard; and we're the ONLY burger place and town where everything is all natural and who's beef, produce, and dairy are all certified organic.

    As I said, we've been really well received and have gotten loads of positive feedback from our fans. However, we realize that we can't make everyone happy, so please come in and have a meal on us when you're in the area (just print and show this to the cashier), and hopefully you will have eaten some good food, and we'd be happy to give you the quick tour of our place highlighting our sustainable practices.

    Keep on bloggin'…


    Don Craven Jr

  • Jodi

    Thanks to everyone for writing. Don, Laura and I would be happy to come for lunch or dinner one day. Appreciate the invite and you taking the time to share more background with us.

    As for favorite burgers in town, I’m with David on the veggie burgers at Billie’s on Burnet but my favorite beef burger is the Big Ass Burger at Roaring Fork. Adam and I shared one at happy hour the other day and it was only $8 and easily filled both of us up. Not bad for a $4 dinner!

    As for Houstons, I can’t seem to order anything but their delicious ribs with fries, or the chicken salad…but maybe one day I’ll check out their veggie burger too.

  • Adam Norwood

    For the record, my personal beef (yuk yuk) with our TerraBurger meal was the price in consideration that the fries were uniformly disliked, and that all 9 of us in my office lunch group left describing it as a squarely ‘average’ meal. I don’t think that’s an unfair assessment. I would definitely be willing to go back, especially if they’ve addressed some of their opening pains, and would recommend that others give them a try.

    The burger was darned tasty, no complaints there. I’m glad to hear they’ve fixed the soggy fries problem, and can definitely appreciate that they were getting slammed after being open for only a couple of weeks — having too many customers at the outset isn’t the worst position to be in, I imagine! I think it’s very sporting for Don to respond personally to the criticisms, too. That’s encouraging.