Food & Culture

Unwrapping Burger Theory’s shift to kangaroo burgers

What if we told you about a hamburger that had a smaller environmental footprint than the burgers we know now? A burger that was also better for you and cost you less money. What if we told you that burger somehow tasted just as good, if not better than what you’ve been eating? That burger exists in Australia right now. And people hate it.

By Maggie Scardifield

Dan Mendelson and Robert Dean think more about burgers than most people. They're the founders of Burger Theory, a "thoughtful fast food" business born in Adelaide in 2011 along with the city's first food truck. The theory at Burger Theory – "make the best burgers with the best ingredients you can find, and people will flock to your shop" – has proved correct. The Advertiser called the business "a gourmet food revolution on four wheels". But now they have a new theory, and it could be leaps and bounds ahead of what burger lovers are ready for.

As of January, there's no beef, chicken or bacon on the menu at any of the three Burger Theory locations. Instead, they're betting their entire business on kangaroo meat. It's all or nothing.

The new kangaroo menu has drawn a lot of very negative comments on social media, ranging from concerns for animal welfare to issues of nationalism, hygiene and food safety. The idea that kangaroo meat is fit only to feed pets has also appeared more than once.

But Dean and Mendelson are sticking to their guns. Kangaroo is better for the environment, says Dean. It's cheaper and makes a better-tasting burger. In the seven years since Burger Theory opened, the burger market has become much more crowded, and when the prices of beef have increased, Burger Theory's prices stayed the same. "You could see that in a couple of years that squeeze was just going to be too much," he says. "That was when we started to reconsider the business model."

Before making the switch to kangaroo, Burger Theory used Coorong Angus chuck steak, ground in-house, to make their 140-gram patties. From day one, they got their meat from Richard Gunner of Feast Fine Foods, one of the country's most respected butchers. "Burgers before those guys got going in Adelaide were pretty much sausage meat," says Gunner. "It was bread and all sorts of unknown things mixed together." From 2011, Feast began to supply quite a few burger restaurants with premium whole cuts of beef that they would then grind themselves, and for a few years demand was steady. But by last year, Burger Theory was the last burger business Gunner was still supplying with premium cuts. "A lot of people start off with the greatest of intentions and then swap or downgrade from whole cuts to trims, or for lower grades and unknown provenance," Gunner says.

Burger Theory uses kangaroo leg meat for the new patties. But 'roo meat is lean, and binding it into a patty requires fat, so 20 per cent of the mix is made up of beef fat, supplied by Gunner. The fat comes from the aged trim of his grass-fed cattle, including Longhorns, South Devon and Belted Galloways (Burger Theory also uses tallow to fry its chips). But even with this beef content, the 'roo patties are still far more environmentally friendly than the rest of the protein on the menu. "Our falafel patty has a higher carbon footprint than the 'roo patty," says Dean. "Someone is still growing and harvesting the chickpeas on land, whereas everything we're getting for the red meat burger already exists."

A kangaroo burger might sound like Australiana kitsch, but don't expect beetroot or a fried egg – it's by no means a milk-bar number with the lot. Burger Theory's new burger is American in its style and dimensions, not unlike something you'd get at Five Guys or Shake Shack in New York City. It's sold in the shop as a "classic American throwback with a sustainable Australian future". It's also $7.80; the original burgers cost between $10 and $14.

The burgers are wrapped in tinfoil, hot and squishy and oozing American cheese. Burger Theory's original beef burger was a thicker patty cooked pink, whereas the 'roo is a smaller, smash-style burger, squashed on the grill, "hot and hard", to form a caramelised crust; not pink, but still juicy on the inside. The meat in the patty is coarsely ground, all char and chew. It's not gamy, thanks to the beef fat, but it's rich. It comes with tomato, lettuce, American cheese and mayonnaise as standard issue, while the cheeseburger also has raw onion, mustard, a thick tomato sauce and the salty hit of pickled karkalla. Both are very good, on par with anything at Mary's or Bar Luca in Sydney or Huxtaburger in Melbourne.

*Dan Mendelson at Burger Theory on Union St, Adelaide*
Dan Mendelson at Burger Theory on Union St, Adelaide

Selling kangaroo meat for human consumption has been legal in South Australia since 1980, yet some of the comments on Burger Theory's Facebook posts about the new burger suggest that a stigma remains. "Eeekkk," wrote Michael. "I've had my last visit there," wrote Terry. "Please don't do this," added Hayley. "It was nice knowing ya," wrote Mary-Jane. "Lost me as a customer," wrote Jessica-Marie, adding a nauseated emoji. Natalie was succinct: "NO."

"No one is doing anything like this, and we know why now," says Dean. In March, a Blackfish-style exposé on kangaroo harvesting is set for release in Australian cinemas. An early review of Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story in The New York Times said "the filmmakers are determined to sound a wake-up siren, and they blast it here with extra strength".

Of the 48 species of kangaroo in Australia, four are legal to harvest commercially: the red kangaroo, the western grey, the eastern grey, and the wallaroo. Commercial harvesting quotas are regulated under a management plan, and vary from state to state with kangaroo populations. According to Ray Borda, the founder of Macro Meats, Burger Theory's supplier and Australia's largest commercial harvester of kangaroo meat, the current estimate of the total number of those four species is 55 million nationwide, excluding the young.

The maximum quota for commercial harvest is typically around 15 per cent of the total population – just over eight million this year – with a far lower number actually taken. "We're told how many we can take, and we're told where we can take them from," says Borda, also the president of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia.

Accredited shooters hunt the animals in the wild, moving between kills in trucks complete with sterilisers and hanging facilities. Macro hunts at more than 200 locations in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, in areas where there's enough feed and water to ensure healthy animals.

Borda started Macro Meats in 1987 and has seen a lot of change in attitudes and processes since then. These days, regulation is strict: the protocol is to kill animals that are stationary but standing with a single shot to the head. "All these things are audited and checked," Borda says. "When they say anybody can get licences, it's not true."

Six years ago Macro made the decision to only harvest bucks to remove the risk of culling females with young. "We haven't shot a female since, but guess what," says Borda, "they still say we club joeys to death."

Top Adelaide restaurants including Orana, Blackwood and Africola get their kangaroo meat from Macro. "I've seen the handling of it," says Africola chef Duncan Welgemoed. "The animals aren't stressed, there's no double shoots, none of that shit. It's done in really small quantities, checked and double-checked, and it's a job. It's not a sport."

At Africola, Welgemoed marinates kangaroo loin and cooks it with native rosemary over an open flame. Welgemoed is aware of the stigma. "It's all right for me to put it on the menu, because I'm South African," he says. "Australians are way behind the eight-ball on that."

As far as safety goes, Macro employs 10 scientists including microbiologists, a chemist, a forensic scientist, a pathologist and a pharmacologist. Around 24 per cent of its sales are to overseas markets (mainly Japan, South Korea and Europe), and 95 per cent of the harvest is eaten by humans. "There's not many people in Australia who are upset with the consumption. But the ones who are are very loud," says Borda.

Nonetheless, kangaroo is eaten in Australia, and there are times and places when 'roo meat sells particularly well. The peak time for the sale of the meat, says Borda, is the week before Australia Day, when sales increase by 32 per cent. If there's a gym within a three-kilometre radius of a retail site, too, sales are consistently higher.

Some Australians choose to eat kangaroo in place of other animal proteins for environmental reasons. Kangaroos have been on this land for millions of years and in that time have adapted to the landscape and climate: their soft feet don't disturb the top soil the way hooves do, and land isn't cleared to graze them. They produce very little methane, and while they eat grasses they don't eat them down to the roots or pull them out of the ground the way sheep and cattle can. "An equivalent-weight kangaroo to sheep or cattle would eat and drink a third of what the sheep or cattle will," says Borda.

The environmental case for Burger Theory's new burger is complicated by the bun Dean and Mendelson have chosen. Where they used to use a larger, brioche-style bun, they've now moved to a smaller, chewier Martin's potato roll – the same bun used at Shake Shack in the US. Burger Theory has imported 41,472 of them from Pennsylvania and they're sitting frozen just outside Adelaide, dispatched as needed. Dean says the bun is the most expensive part of the new burger, and he's aware of the concerns it raises about environmental impact, but is adamant that quality comes first.

For the past six years Burger Theory has been searching for a local baker to make them a potato roll. There have been discussions with Riviera Bakery and Bread Top, even Tip Top, but so far nothing has quite hit the mark. "Our goal is to make the best burger," says Dean. "We don't lose anything by changing our meat, and it's really fortunate that kangaroo is so much more sustainable. But if we stick with the buns we've been using, we lose a lot in terms of the end product."

Then there's the beef fat. For better or worse, the burgers don't really taste like kangaroo; they taste like beef. "We wanted to give people something different, but that was also very familiar," says Dean. "We could have done 'roo as our burger of the month, but there was an opportunity to really reinvent the way we approached the food system." That reinvention includes taking chicken and pork off the menu while they source more sustainable options. Experiments in that direction to date include wild boar bacon and mincing carp to make "chicken" patties.

All of this takes money, and exposes the business to considerable risk. Dean and Mendelson believe in their burgers, but aren't certain it's going to work out. The misapprehension that eating kangaroo meat is inhumane and unsanitary is a constant presence on their social channels, and there's a lot of confusion surrounding non-commercial culling versus commercial harvesting. "In a sense, their hearts are sort of in the right place," says Dean of the commenters. "But ask the scientific community and it's almost a consensus like climate change."

One group that doesn't need convincing is chefs. "It's way more divisive than it should be," says Monty Koludrovic of Sydney's Icebergs Dining Room & Bar. "But anyone who eats a meat pie at the footy is probably eating goat, buffalo, camel and all sorts." Orana's Jock Zonfrillo can't see any reason not to use kangaroo. "The key," he says, "is simply making it delicious."

And Burger Theory's new burgers are delicious. Two cost the same as you'd pay for a less-than-average burger at the RSL. But the theory has its work cut out for it: changing public perception – particularly when you're operating something as mainstream as a burger business – isn't easy. "It's a better burger at a cheaper price," says Dean. "And, at least for now, that's what we hope saves the day."