While sustainability has recently taken hold of the restaurant industry, Ted’s Montana Grill, which operates 45 restaurants in 16 states, has been a practitioner of it since it opened its doors 12 years ago. In fact, being a good corporate citizen is part of the company’s overall operating strategy.
It’s also the only restaurant company that serves bison fillet as a protein staple, says George McKerrow, co-founder of the concept with media mogul Ted Turner, CNN's founder.
“We were ahead of the curve on sustainability, on made-from-scratch fresh gourmet food, and we introduced bison to the American public,” McKerrow says.
Ensuring there is a market for bison is a key part of the company’s corporate strategy. Bison is the top draw on Ted’s menu, with about 40 percent of guests ordering bison, and eight out of 10 of the its best sellers a bison entrée.
“When properly cooked and presented in a fashion that the customer understands, they want it and love it,” McKerrow says. “For us, serving bison is brand enhancement and a competitive advantage.”
While offering a similar taste texture and flavor profile as beef, bison is a bit sweeter and at least 50 percent leaner. Since it doesn’t have beef’s fat content, bison needs to be cooked slow and low; otherwise, it can “turn into a hockey puck,” McKerrow says.
Turner, a leading bison rancher, spent years developing the bison industry, along with many other fellow ranchers. In 2002, the year Ted’s Montana Grill opened, there were approximately 300,000 alive in world. Today, there are 600,000.
“By putting it on the table, we gave people a reason to raise bison and ranch them, assuring their existence into the future,” McKerrow notes, adding that Ted's cooks bison using a signature method. “We cook it under a dome, so it retains its juicy flavor. We spent a lot of time in becoming experts in cooking bison.”
Bison has 50 percent less cholesterol than beef, and is more rich than salmon in Omega 3 fatty acids, McKerrow says. The animal is raised hormone- and antibiotic-free. While Ted’s Montana Grill serves both beef and bison, it offers farm-to-table control of the later.
The menu offers starters Bison Nachos and Karen’s “Flying-D” Bison Chili, and entrées of Bison Meatloaf, Bison Pot Roast, Braised Bison Short Ribs, Bison Filet, and Bison Burgers. There are also plenty of beef options, including burgers and steaks, as well as fish and chicken. The homemade aspect stretchs to beverages and salads, as Ted’s uses 40 lemons in its house-made lemonade, and makes its own salad dressings and croutons, too.
The restaurant company also devotes much of its time, energy, and corporate dollars to ensuring sustainability is incorporated into its operating strategy. “We look to use less water [and] less electricity, and don’t use Styrofoam or non- recyclable materials,” McKerrow says.
Both paper straws—instead of plastic—and waterless urinals are on the radar in the restaurant industry because of Ted’s Montana Grill’s efforts. The corporate headquarter in Atlanta has 28 solar panels, which generates enough electricity to often be off the grid.
“We don’t claim to do everything sustainably,” McKerrow says. “You have to choose wisely. But over the last six to seven years, the consumer has changed. They want to do business with companies that are environmentally sensitive and good community citizens.
“Being sustainable resonates with consumers, and [that makes them] more willing to choose your brand over other brands,” he adds.
By Joann Whitcher