Alison Dennis: Local and Loving It
NAME: Alison Dennis
TITLE: Director of sustainability programs, since 2010
COMPANY: Burgerville, Vancouver, Wash.
PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE INCLUDES: Administrator, Portland Art Museum; ballroom dance teacher; various temp jobs; buyer, then purchasing manager, Oregon Health and Science University; director of supply chain, Burgerville.
EDUCATION: Bennington College, B.A. liberal arts, 1994
Alison Dennis got her supply chain education while working at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. Then she found her vocation while observing local foodways, as she and her husband ate and drank their way through 27 countries on a year-long honeymoon.
"When I got back, I wanted to use my supply chain background to promote local foods and local food systems," Dennis says. "Then Burgerville and I found each other."
Hired in 2006 as director of supply chain at Burgerville, a fast food company with 39 locations in Washington and Oregon, Dennis recently took on a broader challenge as director of sustainability programs.
Burgerville is far from your typical burger joint. Sure, it offers beef patties and fries, but the food is all fresh, and it comes from local ranchers, growers, processors, and bakers. Much of the trash—including the drinking cups—gets hauled to a composting facility.
In her previous position at Burgerville, Dennis was in charge of the entire supply chain, sourcing ingredients and building relationships with local vendors, moving those supplies to restaurants, and managing the company's composting and recycling programs.
Her new position focuses less on day-to-day supply chain operations and more on strategic sustainability initiatives. "I'm creating a large-scale food system and supply chain solutions that make it easier for our region and the country to bring sustainable food production to scale," Dennis says.
Sourcing food locally while keeping prices attractive for consumers can be tricky. Burgerville meets that challenge by cultivating long-term relationships with suppliers.
"It enables them to focus on process improvements and ways to bring value to the chain, instead of spending all their energy searching for the next buyer," Dennis says. It also helps Burgerville keep operations lean, because managers don't need to spend every day watching commodity prices.
Recycling, composting, and smarter packaging have also realized savings for Burgerville. Packaging strategies—using fewer products for more purposes and buying larger quantities from fewer packaging suppliers—have cut costs by more than $120,000 a year.
The next item on Dennis's agenda is making Burgerville less petroleum-dependent. "We work with suppliers to fill trucks and use biofuels for as many fleet vehicles as possible," Dennis says.
It's all part of Dennis's mission not only to run a sustainable business, but to help Burgerville, its partners, and their neighbors make money while acting responsibly.
"I'm working toward a future where the most profitable companies are the ones that take the best care of people and the planet we share," she says.
The Big Questions
What do you do when you're not at work?
I go on long runs through the city, training for the Portland Marathon. I'm studying Spanish and flamenco dance. And I love cooking and eating food in season here in the Pacific Northwest.
What technology is key to your job?
A new Web site I'm excited about, FoodHub.org, is a marketplace for buyers and sellers of Pacific Northwest food.
What's in your laptop bag?
A Washington-grown pear; a book called Righteous Pork Chop by Nicolette Hahn Niman; and my passport.
First Web site you look at in the morning?
Twitter. I host a Twitter feed for Burgerville, where we share stories about our sustainable supply chain and celebrate sustainability and local food system news.
Most fascinating food system you observed on your trip around the world?
In parts of India, an amazing bike-powered distribution system delivers fresh lunches to people's offices from home, then returns the lunch pails to be refilled the next day. You see piles of lunch pails on carts being pulled through the streets.