Made in New England: Meet Chris Nessen of Grateful Burger
When foodie Chris Nessen was gearing up to launch his third startup, he wanted to create a product that was healthful and approachable to the general public. So he took your average burger and gave it a healthy makeover by blending beef with veggies—and dubbing the end result Grateful Burger. We got to chat with Founder and Managing Director Chris to discuss the company’s positive impact on children, sustainable sourcing methods and why he thinks Boston is the Silicon Valley of food right now.
R.K.: How did you get the idea to launch Grateful Burger, and take it from idea to business?
C.N.: I’ve been in the industry for 35 years, and this is my third launch for a startup. I wanted to give back after the first two successful launches, and all the products before weren’t very healthful or sustainable. I started looking at childhood obesity and Type 2 Diabetes rates and thought, ‘why don’t we work on a healthy product that can be consumed a lot by general public?’ We started looking into fast food, and hamburgers popped up, so I came up with a way to blend beef with vegetables. It’s a new product, without creating something that’s totally unfamiliar to children, and that’s our big impact.
In our research, we found that people consume more than 40 billion burgers a year! That’s a big target we can go after, and if we can convert 15 to 20 percent of that total amount, we could really make an impact—encouraging the consumption of less fat, calories and cholesterol as well as a more sustainable way of eating. We’ve been really grateful in this position to do this, so when it was time to come up with a name, Grateful Burger it was.
R.K.: Tell me more about your mission in creating a healthier community and environment.
C.N.: That’s our purpose and why we created Grateful Burger. We want to offer young people the opportunity to eat healthier foods, and take on these challenges of childhood obesity and diabetes. I’m hopeful that someday we can get personally involved with some of the hospitals—like Children’s Hospital—and support them. And we will… one thing at a time!
We also work with Menus of Change, a collaboration between the Harvard Health Department and the Culinary Institute of America. They were the first group to push the idea of plant-forward, plant-based eating and the colleges are very involved in that. Many colleges are trying to reduce meat consumption, so our burgers—which are 60 percent beef and 40 percent vegetables and spices—make it easy for them to live up to their goals.
R.K.: Your burgers are unique in that they’re a blend of natural beef and poultry with fresh vegetables. How do you source your ingredients and go about recipe development?
C.N.: We try to live by two kinds of models: We want to be as sustainably conscious as we possibly can without increasing the price. We’d love to source our ingredients closer, but we’d be out of reach to a lot of schools that couldn’t afford the prices. So we set a 300-mile parameter, sourcing all our mushrooms and the majority of our beef in that area. We get our fresh vegetables and all our mushrooms from the “Mushroom Capital” in Pennsylvania, and we try to source our beef locally as much as possible. If we can’t, we’ll get it out in the big west in the Colorado area.
We also partner with a number of co-ops, all small family farms that are certified humanely raised. We manufacture our products in Danvers at Diluigi Foods, so we can focus on sourcing and not worry about running a plant. Our items are shipped into the plant, they put them together, and then we take back procession and sell them.
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way in launching your business? Any particular challenges along the way?
C.N.: The [blended burger] concept has only been around for five years, so our biggest challenge is the educational side of blended burgers and blended chicken. What does that mean and how do we communicate that to our customers? It was hard to rely on people to do that, but since we’re the professionals, we needed to be out on the street selling the products.
We do a number of tastings, both on the retail and food service side, and we offer one of our promotional marketing programs to all the colleges. This resonates with students since the product is foreign to them. We’ll set up a booth at the dining hall, talk about our menu and ingredients, and sample product. We recently did a program for a sustainability event at Boston College, and we actually made up additional recipes—including chicken slaw and beef tacos—and the kids really loved it!
When we were getting started, we fell into a similar trap that a lot of startups do: not putting enough emphasis on retail packaging and just doing it in-house to save money. But that’s not the way to do it; you really have to invest in your branding. We’ve re-branded this year, and we’ll be re-launching our product soon!
R.K.: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
C.N.: Yes, I really do. I think right now Boston is the Silicon Valley of food; it’s really taken off. There are an awful lot of startups, and it’s helpful to go out and talk with other startup companies. Companies like Branchfood, a group I’m involved in right out of Boston, really give you the opportunity to do that. Boston is such a great place to introduce a new product line, since there are a lot of foodies here that care about health and sustainability.
R.K.: What other local brands are you a fan of?
C.N.: We’re inspired by GrandyOats who have been around for 25 years; they stuck to it and now they’re really reaping the benefits. We’re also a fan of Spindrift who really launched off and they’re doing a great job. They have two totally different ways of running a business!
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
C.N.: I co-founded the company Kettle Cuisine Soup back in 1985, and my inspiration was Julia Child. I was the headwaiter for her at a special function and attending culinary school right here in Boston. I was seven years older than everyone else there, and she came up to me, looked me right in the eye and said, “Stick to it.” I try to remember that and it kind of stuck with me. If you believe in something, you just gotta keep pushing forward.
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
C.N.: We’re hopeful to have a more national presence, maybe not across the whole country but more of a national basis would be great. We’re poised for it—we have the capability with production, marketing and now with our new branding, so it really shines!
We’re expanding, and right now you can find us at all the Roche Brothers and Dave’s Marketplace. We’re always open to suggestions, and if you love the product, feel free to recommend us at your local market!
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business?
C.N.: Do your due diligence. Really think of the brand and do some good research before you start. There are a lot of great ideas out there, but that first initial evaluation is really important. It’ll help you with decisions you have to make. And when you do make decisions, think about both short-term and long-term, and what the effects will be six months to a year, as every decision is important.
R.K.: At WELL, we believe wellness comes in all forms. What does wellness look like for you?
C.N.: A good state of mind is wellness for me. I think you can reach that by having more of an open view of your surroundings. I also look at everything on a [glass is] half full basis; if it’s worth doing, let’s just do it. It makes me think a lot about how we lead our lives; if it’s not going to be detrimental, you should go for it!
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