(photo by Anthony Settipani for PULP)

The Possible Burgers

Why are Southern Colorado's craft burger restaurants rockstars for sourcing local?

I noticed a trend a while back. When it comes to sourcing food locally, there seems to be a surprising front-runner here in Southern Colorado: hamburger joints.

I first started to pick up on this while I was talking to Richard Warner, the mind behind Pueblo’s chile-studded Bingo Burger patties, and the owner of the now two-store franchise. While having a discussion about the challenges and changes he experienced while expanding Bingo Burger into downtown Colorado Springs, we got on the topic of where he sources most of his ingredients.

It’s clearly a point of pride for Warner – who got his start in Portland, Oregon’s farm-to-table scene – to ensure as many of his ingredients are sourced from Pueblo or the surrounding area as possible. While we talked, he gave me an impressive rundown: grass-fed Colorado beef from nearby ranches, cheddar and pepper jack cheeses from 5th Street’s Springside Cheese shop, Gluten-free buns from Outside the Breadbox in Colorado Springs (99% of Warner’s menu is now gluten-free), hot sauce from Jojo’s Sriracha at the Excelsior Farmers Exchange, local beers and of course ice cream from his wife Mary Oreskovitch’s Hopscotch Bakery.

“We’ve been [sourcing locally] since we started in 1999,” Warner told me back in June. “Local is really important to me because I love the fact that I’m supporting a local business, which is helping our economy.”

But Warner is far from the only Colorado burgermeister taking an uber-local approach. Bingo Burger might be just about the only game in Pueblo when it comes to craft burgers, but you only have to go a couple doors down from his Colorado Springs shop to find another family-owned restaurant with deep roots in sustainability.

The Skirted Heifer, which also recently opened a second location in Colorado Springs, is famous for juicy burger patties covered in a skirt of crispy-fried cheese. The beef is sourced from ranches out in Westcliffe, Colorado, less than 80 miles away from the Springs. The hand-cut Belgian fries are made from 100% Colorado-grown russet potatoes (the two restaurants go through about 3000 pounds of them per week). Sauces, condiments and buns are made entirely in-house from old family recipes. The restaurant’s takeout boxes, napkins, cups and lids are all made from either 100% recycled materials or biodegradable plant-based bio-polymer. Even the furniture in The Skirted Heifer is made using reclaimed wood from the Waldo Canyon Fire back in 2012.

Buying local is a point of pride for owner Kevin Megyeri, as I learned when I caught up with him earlier this month.

“I have about seven food purveyors now,” he said. “So whenever something’s in-season and I can get it, I do.” That goes for the simple things, like lettuce and tomatoes, to more Southwestern favorites like jalapenos and Pueblo Chiles, which Megyeri sources from Milberger Farms.

“That was a hard one,” Megyeri said. “We had to convince them to let us get so much that they could freeze it, and we could have it all year-round. It was one of those things that we were literally begging them to do.”

Cafe’s have long been bastions of locavorism, and Urban Steam – part cafe, part restaurant and bar located just off Nevada Avenue – is no exception.

It’s owned by Kelly Bubach, who stopped by my table for a chat one day while I was enjoying a meal on my way to meet a friend. I had ordered the lamb sliders, a dish of Bubach’s own creation, and it was obvious in an instant the amount of care he had put into its crafting. Equally obvious was the care he and his staff take in sourcing as many of the ingredients from within a local radius as possible, whether that’s the Colorado-raised lamb itself or the tomatoes grown in local greenhouses.

“We use local cheeses where we can get them, we use local breads. Everything is organic if possible, everything is as fresh as possible,” Bubach said when I called him up the other day.

“When I source something like that, I really do my diligence and look at the supplier’s information and the producer’s information. I can be very proud of it, I can get really excited about it and really convey that to my customers and my staff: ‘Look, we get these great local products, and we’re excited to introduce you to them.’ You’re not going to get that at a chain restaurant.”

So all of this begs a simple question: Why are so many craft burger joints on top of the whole farm-to-table thing?

Colorado has a long and proud history of ranching, from the legendary Charles Goodnight who lends his name to so many places in Pueblo and beyond, to the many varied characters whose herds fed the rapidly-expanding appetites of the American West. Take a drive through any swath of Colorado and you’re bound to pass a herd or six of cattle, probably some bison, maybe even some sheep or an antelope herd. In many ways, it really is easier to source the ingredients for a burger here than in other parts of the country.

But I have a feeling it goes a little deeper than that. Hamburgers provide chefs and restaurateurs with the unique opportunity to showcase some creativity while still remaining accessible to the vast majority of their customers. Very few people will turn their nose up at a good burger, dietary restrictions excepted. It’s safe, it’s reliable, and that means that it’s also a stable place for chefs to try out something a little bit different or unusual – and what better area to experiment with than greater sustainability?

The final answer to this question comes from Megyeri himself. “Burger places are everywhere,” he says, “and there’s a ton of them. So you’re entering a market that is already supersaturated. You need things that are unique.

“One thing that people are going to take pride in, no matter who you are, is local. Support local, be local. You don’t have to be a big chain.”

Whatever the reason, I’m all for it. As an environmentalist, it’s always heartening to see people fighting the good fight and working to reduce the size of the footprint they leave on the world around us. When they can do it while creating something delicious in the process, well, so much the better.