April 18, 2014
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Cheeseburgers in Paradise

Sustainability is the common thread in one local family’s varied ventures—from fast food to taxicabs.

Cord Thomas (front) and his uncle Hans Hess. Photo by Michael Ventura

Cord Thomas (front) and his uncle Hans Hess. Photo by Michael Ventura

The cars waited in a line that started at the Chevron station and snaked past Hans Hess’ home in Carmel, Calif. The gas shortage of the ’70s was in full throttle and drivers were in a panic. So Hess did what any enterprising 5-year-old would do: He opened a lemonade stand.

“A nickel a cup,” he recalls.

Hess kept the business open for about two weeks, then moved on to other things. (He has since tried his hand at some 25 jobs, from newspaper carrier to legislative aide.) But there’s one lesson from his youth, growing up in energy-conscious, drought-plagued California, that has stuck with him ever since: Some natural resources are in finite supply, and they need to be protected.

Years later, that commitment would shape the business model for Elevation Burger, the cult-status eatery that Hess launched with his wife, April. The first store opened in Falls Church in 2005. Today, it’s a franchise operation with 30 locations in 10 states.

“Interest in preserving the environment, in taking care of God’s creation, has always been part of my approach to things,” says Hess, who has a degree in physics from California Polytechnic State University and a master’s in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary.

His search for the perfect burger turned serious in 2000 when—while working for then-U.S. Rep. Jim Barcia of Michigan—Hess read a white paper tracing antibiotics in livestock to human deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections.

Elevation Burger serves only organic, grass-fed, free-range beef. And its restaurants (which tout the tagline “ingredients matter”) are built with renewable, eco-friendly materials such as bamboo flooring, compressed sorghum tabletops and LED lights. The company also purchases carbon offsets to replenish its energy usage.

“We’ve set out to prove that it’s not just about making money,” says Cord Thomas, Hess’ nephew and business partner. “It’s about making a difference.”

Elevation Burger was already under way when Thomas moved to Arlington from Colorado in 2007 to join the family business—a team that includes Hess’ wife, April; his mom (and Thomas’ grandmother), Dee; and his sister, Cynthia.

But Thomas also wanted to make his own mark. So he asked his uncle: “Do you have any other ideas?”

Hess had a list of them. At the top was enviroCAB, a taxicab business he had been contemplating ever since 2003, when, during a trip to the airport, a talkative taxi driver had shared stories about his life, his problems and the price of gas. Hess thought there might be a solution in a fleet of gas-saving hybrids. The only problem was, he couldn’t run a new cab company and a burger franchise at the same time.

Enter Thomas. “He was the partner I needed to get it done,” says Hess, an Arlington resident since 1999.

Thomas, who has a business degree from the University of Denver, had grown up rebuilding cars (his first vehicle was a 1950 DeSoto) and came to the table with a pragmatism that complemented Hess’ aptitude for big ideas. He quickly immersed himself in learning about hybrid technology.

In 2007, with Arlington’s application deadline for taxicab certificates looming, the two gave up sleep and pounded out a business plan. Soon after, they were introducing the region’s first all-hybrid cab company.

“When they were first approved, we didn’t have any environmentally friendly taxicabs,” says Angie de la Barrera, Arlington’s taxicab industry regulator.

Since then, enviroCAB has paved the way for a practice that’s quickly becoming the new norm. Of the 765 cabs that serve Arlington today, 319 (42 percent) are hybrids.

Of course there were some hiccups in the beginning. Thomas remembers being in his office one afternoon, when one of his drivers burst in.

“Mr. Cord,” the driver said. “The car is broken.”

The car, which was nearly new, was cutting off at stoplights. But it wasn’t malfunctioning; it was conserving energy, as hybrid cars are designed to do.

While the gas savings from hybrid cars are significant—driver Mhamed Bouylazane says he uses two-thirds less in his Prius than he did in his Crown Victoria—hybrids do have other costs. Problems usually require a trip to the dealer (they can’t be fixed at most regular gas stations) and waiting for parts takes time.

Bouylazane, who has put in 230,000 miles for enviroCAB over the past four years, hopes that will change as the technology becomes more mainstream.

In the meantime, enviroCAB is striving to become ever greener. Like Elevation Burger, the company purchases carbon offsets—enough to counterbalance the emissions of its 50-car fleet and then some. This fall, it installed a charging station and began testing the electric Nissan Leaf as a potential addition to its fleet (another first for the region).

What’s next? Hess and Thomas have already started brainstorming—their ideas bouncing like Super Balls between their Columbia Pike and Ballston offices.

They’re not ready to discuss any new ideas with the outside world, but both say there will be a “next thing” eventually.

For now, though, Thomas says, “our plates are full.”

Madelyn Rosenberg is a freelance writer and children’s book author in Arlington. Her first middle-grade novel, Canary in the Coal Mine, is due out this spring.

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