Why did you call yourselves “Burger Theory”?

We (co-founders Dan Mendelson and Rob Dean) met during postgraduate studies at Flinders University. We left those studies to cook burgers from a food truck but some of that learning came along for the ride.

What’s the “theory” then?

We set out to prove that burgers could taste amazing with thoughtful sourcing and without costing the earth.

Why have you changed your menu and your branding?

After heaps of tasting and sourcing research over this past year, we’ve come up with a way to make a burger that tastes more amazing than we could before, with a smaller carbon footprint and sold at a lower price for you. These really don’t cost the earth – literally and figuratively!

We can’t reasonably keep our earlier burgers on the menu if we believe the new ones are better. So we’ve gone all in with all new, which is reflected in our new branding.

Not sure that cuts the mustard… When are you going to get to the ‘roo in the room’?

It is true that our new meat patty is made from a blend of beef and kangaroo. But it was never about the roo…

Last year we asked ourselves some simple questions: what would we do if we were to start a burger joint today? What would it look like and what burgers would we sell?

There are many more burger joints now than there were when we began in 2011. There is greater demand for beef, chicken and pork worldwide. There’s pressure on farmers to produce more animals and there’s pressure from competition to keep prices down.

Conclusion? If you’re getting cheap meat, the cost is being born somewhere else down the line (on farmers, on animals, on the climate, environment and land). We went searching for another way.

So where does the roo come in?

Let’s try a little thought experiment to explain…

You have two hamburgers in front of you. They are identical in every respect, except that the meat patties come from different sources:

  • The first comes from a familiar but introduced species raised for slaughter on cleared land; the second comes from a small percentage of a native species culled to manage its population.

  • The first relies on the industrial food system; the second returns balance to ecological systems put under pressure by the industrial food system.

  • The first comes from a farmed animal that lives for 400 days on average (one tenth its life expectancy); the second comes from a wild animal that lives for 2000 days on average (akin to its life expectancy)

  • The farmed animal is raised against a commercial schedule designed to maximise output; the wild animal is hunted in its natural environment under a world’s best practice harvest operation.

  • Farming to produce the first increases greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, soil erosion and water use; harvesting to produce the second reduces them.

  • You’re used to eating the first; you’re not yet used to eating the second.

  • The first costs more than the second.

Which hamburger do you choose?

Neither, I’m vegetarian.

That’s fine, you can have our falafel burger!

I’m not really, but that should be an option.

Well it’s our thought experiment.

Are the burgers you pose in the scenario above really the same in reality?

Nope. We think the second option – our option – tastes better! This is also to do with the new style of hamburger. We’ve switched to a smashed patty, where you take a loosely formed ball of meat, press it down hard against a super hot grill and hold it there for a few seconds. This gives the patty a really crisp sear as well as a unique shape – no two patties are the same – in a process known as the Maillard reaction.

What’s the Maillard reaction?

At high enough temperatures, amino acids and reducing sugars chemically react. This is what happens to your patty when it is smashed, giving it a rich deep brown colour. More fun though is to identify the Maillard reaction from its distinctive taste (delicious). Our smashed patty ensures that Louis-Camille Maillard’s legacy is a positive one.

Mmm okay, I’ll admit, the mouth is watering a bit… but let’s get back to this sourcing question. You said earlier you’re still using beef. Aren’t you contradicting yourself?

We are still using some beef, yes. But our beef comes from fatty cuts supplied by Richard Gunner’s Fine Meats. These give our burger much of the beefy flavour you know and love, while acting as the binder (roo meat is very lean and tends to fall apart once minced).

Even taken at face value, we’re using 80% less beef than before (and no chicken or pork). But it’s the cut of beef we’re using that takes that percentage even higher. That’s because the demand for prime cuts and muscles means there’s an oversupply of fatty cuts. The beef we use is a virtual byproduct of a system with specific demands that can’t be met without producing general excess.

Right, well we’ve give you the 80%, and take your word on the rest. Having said that, what’s this we hear about you sourcing your bread rolls from overseas? What about the food miles? Why not employ locals?

Ooh, tough one. You must have seen our Facebook… Yes, we are shipping our buns from overseas – Martin’s Potato rolls from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

To start with, there are plenty of issues with the concept of food miles. They’re a simple indicator while the truth tends to be more complex (here’s some further reading). Worth a mention too is the fact that the carbon cost of the shipping, per burger, is far lower than the carbon saving made by having changed our meat source.

Still, there is a carbon cost, and it’s likely higher than it would be if we sourced our buns locally. But therein lies the problem we faced – you can’t get these buns locally (you may say to get a different bun, but that just tells us you haven’t tried a Martin’s Potato roll yet).

If a local company could produce a potato roll that was even 80% as good as a Martin’s, we’d do it.

To the locals’ defence, even the biggest Australian bakeries tend to run hundreds of lines of products, with generic equipment that can be adapted to each line. American bakeries, on the other hand, will run only a handful of lines, but do so with specific equipment made to produce exactly those products.

Seems a bit long-winded…

We’re not great at sound bytes, sorry. But that’s also kind of the point. You can look at each element in isolation, or you can take the helicopter view, which reveals that our impact on the planet has been vastly reduced.

Why is your menu smaller than before?

We like the “do one thing well” philosophy championed by these guys. It’s what we set out to do in the beginning, so in a sense we’re going back to our roots. After all, if doing one thing well can be so complex, surely it’s best to nail that one thing first!

That leads me to another question: does that explain why you dropped chicken? And bacon, for that matter?

It certainly has a lot to do with it, yes. We added chicken (Greenslade’s free range) to our menu when we opened our Union Street store. Soon we had a bunch of additional chicken and beef options. We assumed our customers wanted more choice; now we’re back to thinking we should just do more with fewer things.

Were there any ethical reasons for dropping these, like we read in the paper?

There’s some ethics involved in the call too, but probably not in the way you might assume. It’s true that chickens have the worst ratio of potential life to actual life of all farmed animals. Free range or not, meat chickens are killed at about five weeks when they could live for ten years or more. So that does play on our minds a bit (we tend to eat less chicken these days).

But the main reason comes back to the issue of sustainability. Sadly, an abundant wild chicken population does not exist – just ask the dodo. Nor is there an oversupply of farmed chicken cuts that are less popular than the rest. If there was, we’d be eating it. There is not, in other words, a sustainable choice when it comes to chicken.

And while we’re on the topic, some people have raised a valid question: what if we are successful – too successful – and we put the kangaroo population under threat? The short answer is that if demand were ever to approach supply we could consider that a significant ecological improvement – and then we’d look to change again. We’d never continue with roo under such circumstances, but right now it’s not even close.

Okay, let’s follow your lead and go back to roo. Surely the fact that they’re wild animals means it’s harder to ensure they’re killed humanely?

The sourcing issues with kangaroo are front of mind – we wouldn’t be making the call if we weren’t confident in our supply from Something Wild. But the strides taken in the past few years are significant. An animal is still killed, but at least it got to lead a wild life – and we’d prefer its end came at the hands of a professional rather than under a license almost anyone can apply for.

How can you be sure the meat is safe to eat?

Roo meat is subject to food safety testing that is every bit as stringent as it is with farmed livestock, if not more so. Animals are tagged immediately, tracked through the process and inspected thoroughly before they enter the food system.

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