When Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You  Enterprises bought its Big Bowl Fresh Chinese and Thai  chain back from Brinker International in March 2005, the company took the opportunity to reposition itself at the forefront of the green movement with a commitment to sustainability, earth friendliness, and quality, authentic Asian cooking.
“When we purchased the concept back, being the founders of the concept, we said, ‘Now is the perfect time to re-evaluate and try to grow it up a little bit in terms of what we want to do with the food and the menu,’” says Big Bowl president Danny McGowan.
Today, Big Bowl is known for its use of quality, sustainable ingredients, including Fair Trade coffee, locally grown produce, all-natural chicken and heirloom pork. In addition, the eight-unit chain made the switch to nontoxic cleaning supplies, recycled paper products and packaging, and even eco-friendly uniforms for its staff. Big Bowl is finding out that these changes pay off in consumer loyalty and good will.
Brewing new ideas
Shortly after LEYE reacquired Big Bowl, McGowan had a chance conversation with a customer who told him about Fair Trade coffee, and that resonated so well with McGowan’s vision for the concept that he decided to switch the chain to all Fair Trade coffee. That switch was the first step in what became a conceptwide mission for sustainable, responsible operations.
“She was telling me about Fair Trade coffee and what a difference it can make,” McGowan says. “I thought that was so impressive and it fit in with our new mentality. So immediately during the first week we changed all our coffee to a Fair Trade coffee. That was the first thing we did about three and a half or four years ago.”
Fair Trade is a certification for coffee and other products that are grown by farmers in the developing world, reports Jonathan Jacoby, senior policy advisor for Oxfam America.
COMPANY: Big Bowl Fresh Chinese and Thai, Lettuce Entertain You EnterprisesHEADQUARTERS: ChicagoUNITS: 8FOUNDED: 1992DEVELOPERS: Bruce Cost, culinary guide and partner, and Danny McGowan, president
“The certification ensures that the farmers are paid enough to support their families,” Jacoby says. “In the case of coffee, Fair Trade cuts out the middleman.”
Fair Trade coffee is a premium, high-quality Arabica coffee, Jacoby says, and it is not necessarily more expensive than other premium coffees.
Changing Big Bowl’s coffee only whetted McGowan’s appetite for responsible, premium ingredients. The next step was to look for opportunities to improve the menu.
“Obviously, we’re a food concept, so the next thing was the food,” he says.
Switching the chain to all-natural pork and chicken was expensive and time-consuming, “but we really thought it was the right thing to do in terms of the product and what we are doing,” McGowan says.
Emphasizing all-natural and local ingredients makes for a more authentic experience, says Bruce Cost, “culinary guide” and partner with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
“This goes along more with the ingredients you might get in Asia,” he says. “It just tastes better.”
“We went back to that more traditional style of cooking, so kung pao chicken traditionally would be done with all dark meat, so our kung pao chicken is all dark meat,” McGowan says. “We started to use the whole bird, and we do a lot of the butchering and cutting in our own restaurants.”
Being based in the Midwest means Big Bowl can’t guarantee access to local, organic produce year-round, but they work with local farmers in their markets to take advantage of what they can get.
“Even if it’s two, three or four things, when the corn is fresh and local we use that,” McGowan says. “When it’s tomatoes, we’ll use that. So we’ve started to really evolve that philosophy.”
The Five Words
McGowan sums up the Big Bowl philosophy in what he calls the “Five Words.”
“Those five words are: local, natural, organic, self-sustaining and eco-friendly,” McGowan says. “The idea was that no matter what else we did—whether it was with the food, the menus, the decor—we would try to make sure that one or two of those words were part of it. Hopefully, it is all of them.”
“A lot of chains have been looking at sustainability,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a Chicago-based consulting firm. “You can look at Chipotle, and they’re using more organic and more local sourcing and thinking about sustainability. It’s really the forward-thinking organizations that are willing to invest in sustainability.
“Many restaurants today can’t afford to think about sustainability issues because there is cost involved,” Tristano continues. “But organizations that are making that commitment in spite of the economic conditions are very progressive. And if you can use that as a trade-off to marketing, that is great.”