On Food: For big chains, is ‘national’ becoming the new ‘local’, or is it the same old nonsense?

On Food: For big chains, is ‘national’ becoming the new ‘local’, or is it the same old nonsense?

If the topic of local food comes up at any conference I attend, inevitably someone will say “but of course chain restaurants can’t use local food.”

In fact they can, and some do. Quick-service burger chains Burgerville [2] of Vancouver, Wash., and Good Times Burgers of Golden, Colo., use local beef suppliers, and Burgerville is well-known for its seasonal milk shakes that use local produce. Eat’n Park, a family-dining chain based in the Pittsburgh area, has some local ingredients on its salad bars. Fresh City in Needham, Mass., Minneapolis-based Oceanaire Seafood Room and others all use local produce when it’s in season.

It’s not all local, to be sure, but even restaurants whose entire mission is based on supporting local farmers don’t get everything locally. Blue Hill at Stone Barns [3], a fine-dining restaurant in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., which was established by the Rockefeller Foundation in part to support local farms—and does so in spades—still gets dried beans from California.

All of the chains I just mentioned are fairly small, however—fewer than 100 units—but some of the big chains are clearly trying to figure out how to jump on the local bandwagon, at least in their marketing.

Some of them have mixed the notion of local with a heaping dose of patriotism and made it national.

Take Yum Brands’ A&W [4] chain, which this summer, around Independence Day, began its “Moove to American” campaign supporting U.S. beef. Part of the campaign was a TV advertisement that showed a man talking to a statue of Ronald McDonald, expressing profound disappointment and betrayal that some of McDonald’s [5] beef came from New Zealand.

“New Zealand?” he asked, as if that nice country, a longtime friend of the United States and an excellent trading partner with farming and animal husbandry practices at least as sound as our own, were supporting terrorists and stirring ground glass into their beef exports.

For the record, according to Meat and Wool NZ, New Zealand’s equivalent of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, that little island country only exported about 400 million pounds of beef, mostly ground, here last year. That figure accounts for 52 percent of New Zealand’s beef exports but less than 2 percent of our consumption of around 28 billion pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So get off their backs.

This summer I also saw a tray liner at a Burger King that had written at the top “Triple Whopper.”

Beneath that was written: “Local flavor added to your favorite Whopper.”

There was a picture of a Triple Whopper with labels for some of the ingredients. Lettuce was labeled Northwest. “The rain brings out the lush greens,” it said.

The cheese was called Midwest. “Fans of the cheese,” it explained.

The bun represented the Plains. “Home [6] to nice, hearty buns,” it said, whatever that means.

The three beef patties represented the Southwest: “Big, bold and beefy.”

Finally, the sauce was labeled for the East Coast’s “saucy attitude.”

You’ll notice that BK was in no way claiming that those ingredients came from those specific parts of the country. In fact, it wasn’t really claiming anything, just implying that all of the United States was personified in its signature sandwich.

I’m not a particular fan of these marketing ploys, but I wonder if they’ll succeed in selling burgers. Will Americans really forgo a Big Mac or Quarter Pounder for an A&W Papa Burger to buy American beef? Will there be an anti-New Zealand backlash? Will we rename New Zealand’s kiwifruit “freedom fruit?” Will people in the Northwest start ordering their Triple Whoppers with extra lettuce?

I doubt it.