MAX Burgers – A sustainable fast-food joint?

This week my friend Rick Wheatley, founder of Choosing 2Lead, arranged the first Salon gathering of what may be called the “Club of Oslo” in reference to the now famous “Club of Rome”.  He invited young professionals interested in sustainable business practices to an evening of discussion and reflection that could potentially help them initiate their own or a client’s business along a more sustainable trajectory.  He had discovered through his interviews (see website) that many young professionals feel quite frustrated because the companies where they work don’t take sustainability seriously.  In fact some of them who actually had credentials in implementing sustainability were unable to get jobs in the field and consequently became discouraged and apathetic in face of sustainability challenges.

There was no problem attracting these young people to a workshop where a speaker who has had both experience and financial success in transforming a fast food company into a role model of sustainability.  The workshop filled in a few days.  Pär Larshans, Chief Sustainability Officer of MAX Hamburgers, a small Swedish fast food chain that won the London Green Award, was the speaker at the event.

This turned out to be quite a special evening for all of us.  I myself was there and was very taken by the holistic approach of the MAX transformation but also found the event itself to be significant and evolutionary in its format. First about the event and then about MAX.


Young professionals and a Chief Sustainability Officer – in a circle

The event was held in a rather shabby room, recently taken over by a group of young people trying to create a co-working space for social entrepreneurs.  We are used to having events in high tech, well functioning places – highly professional with plenty of distance between the presenter and the audience.  This was the opposite.  The room had a kind of hippy-artist feel to it – relaxed and informal.  Hand-drawn brainstorming maps on the walls and signs of lots of collaborative activities.  This set the tone for a relaxed meeting with a speaker who mingled with the young people before the program began.

The room was set up with a circle of chairs without tables and everyone, including the speaker, sat in the circle.  Rick had asked the participants to prepare and submit questions for the speaker before the event, so each participant had thought through in advance what they wanted to get out of the evening.  This set up a kind of high expectation on the part of the participants and also the speaker.  There were about 15 people present and the evening started with each person saying who they were and why there were at the meeting.  The speaker then presented for about a half hour, moving out of the circle to write on flip-charts and re-joining circle again when he was finished.  Then each of the participants got an opportunity to ask their questions within the circle.  A facilitator kept the questions moving and the speaker  part of the circle.

Participants reported during the break that the circle and the intimate atmosphere made them feel very relaxed and more able to participate in a meaningful way. They loved the access to the speaker and the potential to bring their ideas forward and get feedback from him.  After the break the participants spent 10 minutes or so in small groups, right within the circle, discussing what they had heard so far and formulating new questions for the speaker.  The rest of the meeting addressed these very intelligent and relevant questions.  At the end, each person in the circle said what they appreciated about the evening, including the speaker – who reported how much he learned through the questions and interest of the participants.  The participants also got a chance to network and support each other and so felt stronger in their ability to start a new conversation about sustainability where they work.

I see this whole set up as an evolutionary approach of collaboration and learning and certainly a better use of resources on all levels.  Well done 2Lead!


Reengineering the fast food industry from the inside out

Next was the story of MAX hamburgers itself.  This fascinating and complex story is attracting attention around the world, in fact they were recently profiled as a front-page story in TIME magazine (link).  MAX is the first, and still the only, in the industry to introduce a menu where every item’s CO2 emissions are declared. They’ve taken a unique and holistic approach to sustainability that stimulates profit and makes a big difference on many levels.  BUT – What I would like to highlight is the unusually simple approach MAX used to address various challenges.

What was a big surprise to me was their understanding of sustainability that goes way beyond the most commonly held approaches.  The speaker pointed out that there are two kinds of resources that are becoming scarce – one ecological and the other human.  The need for employees was a big problem for MAX  (when they opened a shop in Oslo they had to import employees from Sweden!)  But even in Sweden there was a lack of employees to do the basic work.  So MAX started employing disabled people.  To make this work, they realized that the leaders of the shops had to be trained in order to be able to work with people who are “different”.  All the leaders learned to overcome their own mental models and beliefs about disabled people and to treat them with respect and support.  This led to a culture with core values of respect and cooperation which soon became visible to the customers, the government, the European Union!  The speaker told us that the more they helped people like the disabled the more the received in return – in the form of attention, profit and market share. Max was also recently appointed one of the top ten most innovative restaurants in the world by Fast Company.

Now the company is moving into employing and training young immigrants who often have trouble getting jobs in Sweden.  They have discovered that the motivation and ability of these people make them great candidates for leadership positions in a relatively short time period.  Using the same kind of training programs, called The Human Element, they have been able to expand their presence in Sweden and into the rest of Europe.

  • 86 restaurants in Sweden, all owned by the family
  • Approx. 3 000 employees
  • Turnover of 150 million Euro
  • Average turnover per restaurant 2 million Euro
  • Most profitable restaurant chain in Sweden outperforming both McDonald’s and Burger King

One of the core values that MAX has is “choice” – they hold this true for the employees, the leaders and the customers.  This is why they decided to figure out the carbon footprint of everything on their menu!  The beef burgers were of course the highest carbon content (a fact that MAX lives with and is continually evaluating).  The customers continue to eat the burgers but the most carbon-intensive (largest burgers) began to be less popular and non-meat burgers became more popular!  In addition to this, the company reduced the fat, sugar and salt content of its burgers, using the highest quality meat they could get. If you are going to eat a burger at least let it be healthy. Great taste and healthy products became another of their values.

The new Max hamburger knocks out both Burger King and McDonald’s when it comes to meat taste and french fries.  – Aftenposten, Norway, 2011-05-24

Although knowing that beef is the most carbon-producing product, they still decided to keep it on the menu –  with the idea that if they stopped, more people would go to the unhealthy burger shops, which would defeat the whole purpose.  But they are still on the look-out for ways to increase their sustainability standards. Of course they have also done all traditional things that we would expect (see Time article above).  But what makes them stand out for me is the way they have considered ALL the angles:  values, human working conditions, social justice, leadership that motivates through self-reflection and adjusted beliefs, customers that are involved in choosing the right foods, health, energy use, recycling, water, supply-chain, meaningful work – to name a few.  There are not many companies that take all these things into account when they start a sustainability program!

Another aspect that was unusual is the way MAX looks at challenges and problems.  It seems to me that they actually relish a problem and see it as a wonderful opportunity for innovation and creativity.  All the staff and leaders learn to face problems head-on with no fear but rather excitement for new possibilities.  This is surely a trait that we all can use!

I am impressed and so are many others.  Pär is a highly sought after speaker and has been around the world talking about this success story.  MAX is a role model that can help many companies to make the right decisions and start down the path toward a green future.





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