To say that Hans Hess’ career path has meandered would be an understatement: In college, he majored in physics. Then he went to Dallas Seminary. After that, he landed on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide. Obviously, that set him up to be a serial entrepreneur. Today, the California native lives just outside Washington, D.C., and runs two companies: Elevation Burger, a rapidly growing fast-food chain that serves burgers made from organic, grass-fed beef and fresh-cut French fries fried in olive oil; and EnviroCab, a northern Virginia taxi operation whose earth-friendly fleet has only Priuses and hybrid Ford Escapes.
Jeff Chu: OK, so where’s the common thread between burgers and taxis?
Hans Hess: [Laughs] They’re both about care for people and for the environment.
JC: And how do you get from seminary to burgers and taxis?
HH: I have a degree in theology from Dallas Seminary, and I’ve spent the last 10 to 15 years thinking about how being a Christian affects what I do in the world. I also got a degree in physics at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. I didn’t do either degree with the idea that I’d be a theologian or a physicist. I just couldn’t have been those things. So I was left with trying to reconcile living an alternate life with doing something I thought would please God. I wanted to do something that was positive and that was different.
JC: Let’s talk about the burgers. What was the inspiration?
HH: I grew up in California, so there’s a heavy In-N-Out influence there. My mom and I always had a knack for finding good burgers when I was a kid. In 2002, I’d just been married, and I had an epiphany: Nobody’s doing a better-for-you burger. I wondered why nobody was doing a burger that was organic and antibiotic-free.
Back then, nothing was really going on in the burger business except McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s. And if you had told someone you were opening a burger restaurant, they would have told you, “You’re the biggest idiot.” Everyone said I’d get crushed.
We opened the first store in 2005. And now everyone wants to be in the better-burger business—that’s what we in the business call it.
JC: And the cabs?
HH: It’s not right for cabs to be running around using gas at 16 mpg when there are viable options that can run on half to a third that amount of gas.
I had the idea within a year of the burger idea, but for the sake of personal discipline, I put it on the back burner. Then my nephew moved to D.C. in 2007. He didn’t want to take a job that he wasn’t interested in, and he wanted my entrepreneurial advice. He asked if I had any ideas, and I said, “Actually, I do!” Turns out the window to apply for a taxi license was a couple of days away, and so we went to work. They awarded us 50 cabs on the third anniversary of Elevation Burger.
JC: Environmentalism has not historically been an emphasis for Christians in America, nor for businessmen.
HH: Absolutely not. It definitely hasn’t been mainstream in Christian circles. In the 1990s, if you talked about caring for the environment, a lot of conservative Christians would have thought you were liberal or the devil or something. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, it’s all going to burn anyway,” or “Jesus is going to start with a new slate anyway, so why bother cleaning this one?” But we can’t wait until Jesus comes back. And more and more evangelicals have had the courage to say we should care about the environment. God created it in pristine form, and it’s our job to tend it.
JC: Is part of the shift toward environmental awareness a generational one?
HH: Yes. Younger generations have realized there was no conflict between good theology and doing everything you can for the environment.
JC: Where did your interest in environmental issues come from?
HH: For the first 22 years of my life, I lived in beautiful places in coastal California. Californians generally had a conservationist ethic, and an orientation towards food that was conscious of the nascent natural-foods market.
I grew up in Carmel, four blocks from the Natural Foods Market—a proto-Whole Foods. If my parents said, “Hey, go get some peanut butter,” I didn’t buy a jar of Jif or Skippy or whatever. There was a machine that ground peanuts into peanut butter whenever you wanted it.
Also, California was constantly in drought, so my parents always said, “Conserve the water!” Those definitely were environmental factors, and later, those ideas were reinforced by the idea of stewardship.
JC: How do you make the case for those who still don’t see things your way?
HH: Here’s one way I preempt getting into arguments. You may believe in global warming or you may not, but if I asked you to walk outside, where I have a hybrid and a Crown Victoria sitting next to each other, and I said you had to put your mouth over the tailpipe of one for five minutes, which would you choose?
Pollution is bad. We all know that. If you have a chance to reduce it, why wouldn’t you? Christians should be doing things that are healing and redemptive rather than saying that Jesus will take care of it. That doesn’t let us off the hook.
JC: One of the big issues right now is the food supply chain—you see the problem in egg recalls, you see it in tainted supplies from overseas. Elevation Burger is expanding quickly, but aren’t there supply issues for organic meat?
HH: That’s the hugest issue. There are limits right now. No supplier on earth can supply 100 stores with enough organic, grass-fed beef. The amount that they can supply is not even a drop in the bucket.
We’ve been fortunate to develop a relationship with a co-op of family farmers who get what we’re doing and are able to grow with us. They have a passion for organic production that matches ours. These families don’t just do what they do for the money. It’s a way of life.
They also understand that we’re not motivated just by profit, and there’s a big-picture applicability to this. If you think of cost and quality as side-by-side arrows, the factory-farm model has two arrows pointing down. There’s a floor to the quality arrow—the product has to be recognizable in the marketplace as food, but the arrow is nevertheless pointed down. Our vision is the opposite of this. We want the other arrow to be pointing down—the cost arrow—but the quality arrow has to be pointing up.
JC: There’s been a series of books about how Christianity and capitalism are, for better or worse, intertwined, especially in the West. What do you think of that? How Christian is capitalism?
HH: Your question is important, but it’s not the question that governs my life. I say to myself, God has put me in a capitalist society and he has given me capitalist gifts. My question is not so much, Is this good or is it bad? For me, it’s more, How do I be a good steward in this time, space, and place, in a way that pleases God first and also pleases me? I try to work this out every day of my life. Are there things for me to do that are pleasing to God, that are meaningful, that improve the lot of those around me? It’s the stewardship-of-creation idea.
JC: Who are your role models or mentors in business? What has influenced the path you’ve chosen?
HH: Two books come to mind: Fast Food Nation had a huge impact on me as a big-picture framework. And Behind the Arches, which is about McDonald’s, was fascinating to me, but probably boring to most people.
I don’t say this out loud very much because people might think it’s silly to have the deceased as a mentor, but in some ways, Ray Kroc [who grew McDonald’s into a behemoth] is a mentor. The brilliant thing that he did was he took franchising— which, in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s was usually basically a pyramid scheme—and reinforced it with ethical notions of what was good and right. Back then, there were no controls on quality—they didn’t care. It was about selling territories and obligating franchisees to buy supplies at a huge markup. But Kroc had the notion that a franchise system should deliver a quality food product. McDonald’s was not going to make its money off the supply chain but off the services that a franchise model needed to be successful. I took a lot of lessons from that.
The value investor mindset of Warren Buffett has helped me. I’ve read a lot of his stuff, and I’ve tried to develop a perspective about growing a business that is consistent with what he says. I’m not your traditional serial entrepreneur. This is an influence of Warren Buffett on me: I’m not interested in going from business to business, rolling the dice, cashing out. There’s a lot of great worldly wisdom in what he has said and done, but I also spar mentally with his ideas—I’ll probably never talk to him in person, so I might as well in my head. For instance, he’s a big advocate of shareholder value, but I think you have to remunerate not just the shareholder but all the stakeholders; there’s more than just the person who invested money to be considered.
JC: What about non-worldly wisdom? Is there anything you learned at seminary that still percolates into your day-to-day?
HH: I had a professor who tried to drill into us, almost constantly, that the first eleven chapters of Genesis were fundamental not only to understanding the whole rest of the Bible but also to you and what you do in the world. In one sense everything is just a rehash of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The lessons are all there: God gave you a garden to tend, so are you tending it? You rebelled against God; what is your relationship to that rebellion? These pile on top of each other. It’s a framework I think about every day.
JC: Doesn’t the business world make it tough to focus on that framework?
HH: Sure. One of the things that I learned in seminary from a good friend who went on to get his Ph.D. and become a professor was that it is good and right to have a vision that is transformative and redemptive, no matter what situation you are in. I believe that God has given me a mission to transform how people eat and to create demand for products that people didn’t even know they needed.
The big temptation is to have a sense of success based on money, but I know it’s not about money. I’ve lived pretty close to being poor—one toy a year at Christmas was the way it was when I was growing up, though I know that’s more than a lot of people have— and I’m pretty content. I keep trying to interpret things through the lens of stewardship. How can I further use what I do to honour the kingdom? Do I fail? Yeah. And there’s no point denying it.
JC: And what have you learned in the real-world school of business that has shaped the way you think?
HH: How fragile things are! Whether it’s oil leaks in the Gulf or a financial system that can so rapidly go from boom to bust, we have plenty of reminders that what we have is God’s provision. There’s a tendency in America to say, “See, I worked for this!” But that’s a myth. In 1776, a lot of people paid with blood and tears so that we could have a nation. A lot of people have been taxed much more onerously than we have been so that we could have this system, this country.
God has set up a lot of conditions in the past that made this life possible. And God has showed grace by allowing me to be on the path that I’m on. How fragile is this life and how fragile is this world, but every believer is a minister no matter what his specific vocation. Burgers and cabs are where I am supposed to be.