In this episode, Carl Jacobs, CEO of Apicbase is seating down with a special guest, Kaj Török, the CSO of Max Burgers, a renowned Swedish burger brand that has been at the forefront of the sustainability movement.
One of the key topics discussed is how sustainability has increased Max Burger’s sales by a staggering 900%. Kaj sheds light on the strategies and initiatives that Max Burgers has implemented to engage customers and drive their sustainable dining experience.
Carl: Hello, I’m Carl Jacobs and I’m co-founder and CEO of Apicbase. At Apicbase, we are building the world’s best food and beverage management platform. But in this podcast series, it’s all about finding answers on how to grow and scale your food service business. I’m talking to numerous experts and industry professionals who are passionate about building a healthy food service industry. Join me on this fascinating journey of entrepreneurship in food.
All right. So today we have a conversation with Kaj Török. Kaj is the chief sustainability officer at Max Burgers. And as always, my first question is, who is Kaj and what is his role at Max Burgers?
Kaj Török: Yeah, so I’m leading the change at Max Burgers towards sustainability. So that would be health, fairness, environment and also engagement for all of these issues. And otherwise. I’m a parent of two kids. I started off in systems ecology, but then I realized we need to drive change in another way. So I also studied communication and business development and so on. So I’ve been at Max since 2016, but I’ve been an advisor to Max since 2006. So it’s been a long journey. And I do have some gray stuff in my beard.
Carl: All right. People who watch the podcast will see that, definitely.
Kaj Török: Yeah. So before that, I started off the Stockholm office of Futerra, a global consultancy firm within Change and Sustainability with main office in London. So I started that together with a couple of friends. And before that I was at The Natural Step, an NGO. That was how I came in contact with Max actually. They wanted help from this NGO and yeah. And then you can go back in time.
Carl: Yes. And just out of curiosity then in terms of the consultancy firm, that was then I believe, in which time we were speaking 2006 or?
Kaj Török: Yeah I drove 2009 to 2016 was Futerra and then 2006 to 2009 was The Natural Step.
Carl: And if you talk about the Futerra thing, you know, sustainability is something that’s, you know, been around for a long time, but it’s very hot at the moment, you could say.
Kaj Török: Yeah. So when I started studying systems ecology in the 90s, people were saying that sustainability is going to be the thing of the future. And I think that in 2005-2006, with Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, more and more became engaged, especially to the climate issues globally. But also Sweden is generally ahead of its time, a little bit in this area.
I think what we did with Futerra in 2009 was that we said, “We need to create a good connection between kind of sustainability professionals and marketing professionals and communication professionals,” Because we could see that in many companies, maybe the environmental manager or whatever title they had, they were a little bit alone and quite often depressed that they couldn’t get a good connection with the marketing director or the corporate comms part. And on the other hand, the marketing directors were kind of saying, “you know what, I’m asking questions to the sustainability people and I don’t get anything that we can talk about. They just say that everything is complex.”
So from that perspective, we understood we had something to do that was different. And I think when we have this kind of change management communication sustainability agency, we really filled up a void, a gap that was there. So after a couple of years when we showed that we took a lot of customers from large PR firms and communications agencies and so on, they started new departments around sustainability. So we helped catalyze that process in Sweden, I think. And today most large communication agencies do also need sustainability experts.
Kaj Török: Yeah yeah it was always an issue to think about those areas and of course we were afraid. And a few of those that connected to us really wanted us to kind of clean their brand and we didn’t want to do that. So we said no to a number of different projects and cooperations. But so greenwash is kind of on everyone’s agenda today and everyone knows about it. But what we realized at that time was that even more common was greenhush. So talking too little about sustainability, even though you had something to say.
So if greenwash is misleading communication around environmental claims, greenhushing is keeping quiet though you have really good potential environmental claims because companies are so afraid of doing the wrong thing. So many are thinking we can’t do anything. So the big question today for me is, yes, we should avoid greenwash. That’s dangerous, but we should also avoid greenhush, because the thing is that if companies are not talking about what they’re doing within sustainability, they won’t market the new things, new products, new companies, new services. And if they don’t market those things, we’re not going to be able to fix the climate or any of the other kind of big human questions that that we have. We need this.
So we need to find a good connection between companies and consumers. And the main link here is that consumers can make better choices. So if we’re doing greenwash, they’re going to do the wrong choices. If we’re doing greenhush, they’re not going to make any choices. So we really need to find the green balance here.
Carl: Yeah. So you’re actually helping businesses that were doing probably already some environmental positives and help them, you know, communicate about it. That’s really interesting.
Kaj: Yeah, we help them with both things. If they didn’t know what they could do, maybe it was more business development. So it was about changing what they sell or if they had something to sell, but they didn’t dare talk about it, then that was the challenge instead. So seeing both at the same time was really the interesting thing here.
Kaj Török: Yeah, so I started working with Max in 2006 at The Natural Step and they had seen that we worked with McDonald’s earlier than that. And during the 90s in Sweden, McDonald’s was really a sustainability leader. But they kind of stopped working with The Natural Step and they had changed management and leadership and so on. And so when Max came, we started asking the question to McDonald’s, Are we working? Are we still working together? Are we not doing that? And it took us half a year to find out that, no, they were not planning new stuff with us. So then we said, “Okay. But then we’ll work with Max” and yeah, that’s how it all started in 2006.
But then in 2016, while I was, you know, going over to Max to work on the inside. That was just one day. I was sitting in these advisory meetings and they were saying, Christoffer Bergfors, one of the owners said “We’re going to reorganize a little bit on the inside here. So we’re going to hire a new chief sustainability officer.” And I said, “That sounds interesting.” And then he said, “Oh, are you interested? I’ve been thinking about asking you.” And that’s how it happened.
Kaj Török: You’re right. You’re perfectly right. So Max was founded in 1968 by Curt and Brita, two teenagers falling in love. It was above the polar circle in Sweden in a small mining town called Gällivare. And the first environmental decision they made already in 1969, they had to choose between winter tires or an aluminium box for recycling cardboard, and they chose the aluminum box. So that’s the kind of first time we know we took an environmental decision and today we’re still family owned.
So Christoffer Bergfors is one of the brothers heading Max today, together with Richard Bergfors. And Curt died last year, but Brita is still engaged. So, we have said we should be family owned for seven generations. So we need a business model that has to be working for seven generations. And that means we really need to think long term about what we’re doing. And yeah, in Sweden we’re larger than Burger King, we’re smaller than McDonald’s, but we have also have operations in Norway, Denmark and Poland. And in those places we’re quite small still. And the Swedes say we have the tastiest burgers.
Carl: I have no doubt about that. Just if you say smaller than McDonald’s, bigger than Burger King, how many outlets are we talking in total?
Kaj: We’re around 200 now. But in Sweden, McDonald’s has maybe 20% more restaurants than we have, but we are almost double the size of Burger King.
Kaj: We’re growing pretty fast. And last year we actually took over the first restaurant that McDonald’s started in Sweden in 1974. So it’s kind of a shifting who’s sitting on the burger throne.
Kaj Török: Well, you know, there are so many different things. So they kind of said, we need someone to head this. It wasn’t more clear than that. But since I’ve been working for ten years, we did a lot of stuff already. So I was really, you know, into the agenda. And one of the major things we talked about at that time was that we need to sell more green burgers. That means lacto ovo vegetarian or fully plant based burgers. So in 2014, 2% of our total sales was green burgers. And in 2021, it’s 18%. So it’s a 900% increase in seven years. And at that time we were focusing quite a loton, how do we get those sold? So in 2016, we quintupled the amount of green burgers on the menu and it was our biggest product launch since 1968 and it actually became our most successful one. Yeah.
Carl: Yeah. So about the green burger. Can you tell me what’s in the green burger?
Kaj Török: Yeah. So for one of our best sellers is a cheeseburger. It’s a halloumi burger. Another one is the plant beef that we have developed ourselves, which is fully plant based. And, you know, when you move from purchasing a beef burger to a fully plant based burger, you can reduce your climate footprint with maybe 90%. And that’s huge. If you go from a fossil car to an electrical car, you typically might reduce your carbon footprint with 50%. So that means we have already super duper electrical cars on our menu, like the future electrical cars. So the issue here is just to make sure that people are buying it.
Kaj Török: Yeah. So in 2008 when we really focused more on climate it was with the world’s first climate labeled menu so our guest could choose, make more informed decisions because they could see what was low and high climate impact of our foods. And since then we work to reduce our emissions. But we realized that already then we were also emitting emissions. And what should we do with everything that’s emitted? And so we started planting trees to cover 100% of what was then everything from the farmers land to the guest hand. But in 2018 we turned 50 and we thought then that the biggest thing we can do to honor our history is to build something for the future and not for just for ourselves, but for the world. So we created the world’s first climate positive menu, and that means we’re measuring the whole value chain. Everything from the farmer’s hand to the, sorry, from the farmer’s land to the guest hand, and even the guests journey back and forth to the restaurants. So the whole value chain and and then we work hard to reduce those emissions and we have reduced the emissions from the food, which is 80% of our footprint with 30% in the last six years, according to World Resource Institute. So we’re also doing that. But the third step is so measure, reduce, remove. The third step is to remove more carbon dioxide than what is emitted today. And we do that with projects in Nicaragua, in Uganda and in Mexico with smallhold landowners. So it’s a program to reduce poverty, reduce erosion, reduce droughts and and these trees also increase biodiversity and they protect landowners rights, these smallholder farmers. So a lot of local benefits, but they’re also then reducing 110% of the emissions that our whole value chain is emitting. And we call that climate positive. And we know that it’s not a perfect concept. We don’t know what happens after 20 years with the trees. So it’s kind of sub permanent. It’s often called now today. It could be permanent. We’ve lost so many forests and this is reforestation projects, but we don’t have proper guarantees.
Carl: Yeah. So this is interesting. Actually, just out of my personal interest, how does that work? Like these contracts. So you have a contract with a forestation kind of business that does that for you and they guarantee 20 years of lifetime or how does that work?
Kaj Török: Yeah. So for example in Uganda it’s Trees for Global Benefit, a local NGO, that connects to I don’t know how many farmers or landowners they’re connected to today, but maybe 8000 or something like that and creating those individual contracts. So the landowners are kind of saying, “yes, we want to cooperate here.” It’s fully voluntary, of course, and that means that they get financial help and advice on how to reforest some in their own land. And maybe they want trees for shadow. Maybe they want a mango tree or maybe they just want erosion protection or something else. So it’s on their… They decide for themselves what they want to do on their land.
We think the biggest guarantee for the trees standing there is that they’re doing local benefit that the land owner wants. And we’ve seen so many projects over the years where it’s kind of mass plantations of monocultures and stuff like that. So this approach we have is very different. So it’s third party verified. It’s certified. And and just to maybe go back to why are we doing this with climate positive? Because humanity has already emitted so much carbon into the atmosphere that we cannot reach the 1.5 degree target from Paris with just reducing emissions. It’s too late, I’m afraid to say.
It’s in one way is a hard message that it is too late to reach it just with reducing emissions. So the whole world needs to go climate positive in 2050 or around 2050, according to the Paris Agreement. And we were kind of saying, if the whole world needs to do it later, why don’t we do it already now? Even though it might not be perfect in all the ways, because the only thing that makes sense for humanity is to also start drawing down carbon from the atmosphere.
If we do that, we have a chance of reaching the 1.5 degree target from Paris. And we really want to reach that because in a 1.5 degree hotter world, we might have maybe 1 or 2 meter higher water surface around the globe. And as a consequence of that, we might have 1 billion climate refugees, 1 billion during this century. And what happens with societies then? Are we really fragile or can we uphold the civilizations we have today? What will happen? It’s uncertain. And if we reach the 1.5 degree target, we might have also eradicated one quarter of all species on planet Earth. So that’s if we keep the 1.5 degree target. And right now business as usual is 3 or 4 degrees.
Carl: Yeah. So that of course is a pretty daunting message and I think it’s good that it’s being mentioned. I’m going to be a bit provocative here. I understand that this is something that we need to do, but of course, at what cost do we need to do it? I know that the answer is “yes, but if we don’t do it, the consequences are going to be devastating.”
Kaj Török: Yeah. Both. So I mean, we’re family owned, so we want to do the right thing in the long term. And I think doing this is really creating a voluntary carbon tax for Max in one way so that we always have to spend some extra for the emissions and that makes us even more eager to reduce the emissions. That’s the one of the ideas behind it. But to be honest, it’s been really cheap. It’s 0.4% of our total turnover that it cost us to plant these trees and climate positive and everything like that. And we believe there is a business case. So if we just increase turnover as 1%, with 1% as a result of our climate actions, including climate positive, it’s going to be a really good return on investment. And we believe it’s far above 1%.
Actually, we can see that our sustainability work at least adds 10% more conscious consumers or guests in total. And that means we have a total sustainability cost of less than 1% and we have an increased turnover with at least 10%. So that means return on investment 1 to 10 one krona or €1 out €10 in. It’s fantastic. So that’s also why we’re telling everyone about our journey here, because we think even though we’re kind of small in a global setting, we think that the biggest thing we can do is inspire others to do more. So that’s why we’re keen on sharing our story.
Kaj Török: Yeah, they don’t have to do the same. But what we realized was that, so I’ll just say what it is first. So Dare to Lead is that you actually can borrow my time. Unfortunately, the 22nd this Saturday we shut down the…
Kaj Török: Yeah exactly. So but we’re going to be open. We’ve been helping companies for years. But, so what we wanted to do is people can borrow my time or companies can do it and then we’ll share what we have learned since 2008, how sustainability has made us more profitable and how it created a lot of climate benefits. So we believe that other companies are not reaping the fruits of this change that is coming. I mean, we can see it as a threat, but it’s also an opportunity. So how do you reap the fruits of that opportunity?
Well, many companies are not doing it because they’re not giving it enough attention. So when we do it like this and when they let me in and I’ll probably talk to their top management team together with their sustainability officer and so on, they will put more focus on it and they can see how we did it and they can do it in a way that fits them.
Kaj Török: No, they have actually been a little bit hard to convince that they should look at this from one way, a short term economic perspective. So they are kind of saying, “no, this feels right, we’re doing the right thing. And we believe it’s kind of it’s probably, you know, adding to our brand, it’s adding to our role as an employer, so many other sides.” But they are not thinking about calculating the effects all the time. They were kind of living the mission of creating good food in a good way for a good world. And that’s what we should do. But I have been really keen on trying to calculate this because I want to understand what is it about sustainability that drives success and what is just costs.
So if we can focus on the activities that are giving us the most financial success, the strongest brand and the strongest climate reduction, climate emission reductions or other sustainability benefits, that’s what we should focus on. So really what gives us a bang for the buck? That’s an important question. And then realizing that it is this profitable. It kind of… Yeah, I was happy to see it. I was really happy to see it because in one way it means that if I’m quitting my job, I will leave it in good shape. It’s a business model that it has a good connection to sustainability.
Carl: Yeah, yeah. That’s actually fantastic because I think one of the things that lack in sustainability is exactly this. It is the thinking of making it a good thing for business on the short term as well. And it seems that you’ve succeeded in doing that and just you know to go a bit further on that you know, you say we have a high return on investment.
Kaj Török: Yeah, it’s many different areas. But first of all, I’ll just say that I’ve been part of catalyzing this change, but it’s of course, the whole company that’s been driving the sustainability agenda and creating these benefits. But I’ll go into six drivers for creating value around sustainability.
The first one we mentioned a little bit about the consumers or the, as we call them, guests. So of course we can attract them and we can maybe also, you know, take better charge. We can charge more because conscious consumers say that’s okay. If there is a bigger value, they can pay more. And that’s the first driver. The second driver is the role as an employee. So if it’s easier to hire, retain and activate talent, that’s worth a lot of money. And if it’s just a business case with 1% of all of that increase in all of that, that’s a great business case. I believe it’s much more than that. But I can’t calculate it properly.
And then the third step is, the third driver is licensed to operate. So for example, in Sweden we have an amusement park called Liseberg. It’s in Gothenburg. It’s Sweden’s most popular tourist attraction, and it’s owned by the Gothenburg city. And they said, “We want to work more with sustainability. And they actually quitted the contract for Burger King restaurants and said, We want Max instead.” So we came in with three restaurants and it’s a franchise.
Otherwise we own 92% of the restaurants. But this was franchised, which meant we didn’t have to invest so much in building these restaurants either. And they’re in a really good place. So that means we got location, really good location with the help of sustainability, worth a lot of money. A fourth driver is just reducing costs. So low food waste is one area that we’re doing that in our own operations. We have 1% food waste around that. And of course, compared to a company that would have 20% or just 2%, it saves money. Yeah.
A fifth area is reduced costs for investors or just financing stuff. So the sustainability linked loans are popping up around the banks, but also investors are hugely important so that drives value in that. But I think the number six, and the most important one, is actually to change your business model to make sure that you have innovation enough to align with what the future society needs. Because if you do that, you’re going to have a really good business tomorrow without bumping into the walls of unsustainability around the health awareness environment and other stuff. And the green burgers, as I mentioned, is just one example of that. We didn’t know at that time that we could, you know, create this new business segment that is really profitable.
Kaj Török: Yeah. And I mean, waste is also depending on how you calculate it, what you mean with it. But we’re saying waste in our own operations. So that means in the kitchen and until the guests get it. And I think the main reason here is that we have a business model that is connected in a good way to that. So our food is made to order. We don’t make it before. So if you would have a buffet, you would have a lot of excess products in the evening and you have to throw it away. But we’re not making anything until it’s ordered and why we’re not making it until it’s order because it tastes so much better that way. You know, it’s hot and it’s great. And that’s also what we’ve been unique about in Sweden for many years. That and it improves taste.
But then, of course, if I would think about it really strategically and try to focus even more on waste, I could look at what’s the waste with our customers. Are they sometimes buying two burgers but just eating one because their friend didn’t show up? Is their waste with our producers or distributors? What are they doing? And of course I would maybe also go into energy waste, solar waste. We often don’t talk about this, but you know, if you eat an artichoke, for example, the artichoke will grow on the ground where the sun hits it. And then you will have this whole big plant and of that big plant, you’re just going to take out a small part of it, and then you’ll take/eat small parts of that. So then you have the whole plant, is waste in one way. If you’re not using it for something good. So then the arrows of the sun and what you eat, that could be, you know, another way of measuring waste that could be really driving innovation in the future.
Carl: So that’s something you’re not yet doing. That’s something you’re looking into.
Kaj Török: We’re not doing it right now because our food waste is so low and we’re focusing so hard on climate issues. And it’s a potential that we could use and maybe do later. And I think one of the reasons why we have been able to reduce our carbon footprint is because we’ve been focusing on the really big emitters and still more than 50% of the value chain emissions for Max comes from red meat or beef. Yeah. So we’ve been really focusing hard on how do we sell other stuff than beef.
Kaj Török: Yeah. So when we’re reducing beef consumption with our guests or they are reducing it, we’re just making it easy for them to find good burgers with low climate impact. We’re actually also changing supplier. It’s not the same supplier, but we’re also working with existing suppliers and saying these are our climate targets. What are your climate targets? How can you reduce your climate impact so that we reduce our climate impact? So also the beef producers are working with climate impact as well.
Kaj: Well, what we know about the future is that we don’t know the future, so anything can happen. But if I could dream a little bit, I would hope that health and climate has met in a good way. So we know that your mom and your doctor says the same thing. Eat more greens. It’s good for you. And we know that greens have a low climate impact. So if we could make sure that burgers that are green with lower climate impact and that gives you more fibers and less saturated fats and so on. If we can combine that in the future and we would, you know, create a business model that Curt and Britta would be really proud of, I think. The founders of Max.
Carl: Yes. Very nice. All right. Thank you very much for this interesting conversation. I think it is living proof of the fact that sustainability and profitability can be reached in one business. So I think this is something that our listeners will very much appreciate and hopefully it inspires them to do the same in their business. And maybe reach out to you through the Dare to Lead campaign, maybe the next one if you do another one.
Kaj: If we do another one.
Carl: Yes. Thank you very much, Kaj, for this. And I wish you a very nice continuation of the day.
Kaj: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. And good luck with everything you do.
Carl: Thank you very much. Goodbye. This brings us to the end of the show. My name is Carl Jacobs, and I hope you enjoyed this episode. The Food Service Growth Show is all about growing your brand into a profitable and healthy business. Subscribe to this channel for more hands on interviews and insights. Until next time on The Food Service Growth Show.
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