• Thu August 20 2009
  • Posted Aug 20, 2009
Portland, OR By Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY Sarah Gilbert stepped off her bicycle long enough to send one angry tweet via Twitter— and it's changed the way one fast-growing burger chain treats bike riders. The 35-year-old blogger, freelance writer and mother of three doesn't own a car. She gets around usually bike-friendly Portland, Ore., on a custom-made stretch bike that fits all three of her boys, ages 2, 4 and 7. A bumper sticker boasts: "One less minivan." But after biking last week into the drive-through of the local Burgerville— an eco-conscious burger chain that even recycles its used cooking oil into biodiesel — she tried to order four cheeseburgers. No go. She was refused service at the drive-through for, of all things, ordering from a bike. Never mind that the environmentally friendly restaurant chain spent $185,000 on wind energy credits in 2008 to compensate for the electricity used in its 39 stores and at its corporate headquarters. When Gilbert got home, she sent out a huffy tweet followed by a pointed letter to the chain, which she posted on her blog, By the next day, the company apologized. In short order, the Vancouver, Wash.-based chain, with locations in Oregon and Washington, revamped its policy and will announce a new bicycle-friendly drive-through program on Sept. 8. FIND MORE STORIES IN: Twitter | Burger King | McDonald's | League of American Bicyclists | Burgerville, USA "Bicyclists aren't dangerous," says Gilbert, who has accepted the chain's apology. "They're people who've chosen not to drive a car." Particularly in Portland — 4.2% of workers commute to work via bike, vs. 0.47% nationally, says the Census Bureau. What frustrated Gilbert most is that she'd been served at the same drive-through — on her bike — a few weeks earlier. McDonald's and Burger King both ban bikes from drive-throughs, citing concern for the safety of their customers. Being shunned from drive-throughs is a frustration for bicyclists, says Elizabeth Kiker, vice president at the advocacy group League of American Bicyclists. "It's so arbitrary." But bicyclists don't always go quietly. Besides her blog, Gilbert tweets, and has 3,000 followers. The lesson for companies that incorporate green values into the brand is to carefully match company guidelines with those values. "Burgerville doesn't only sell burgers, they sell trust," says Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. Unless Burgerville quickly comes up with an outside-the-box sustainability move, the marketing consultant says, "They'll always be known for the woman on the bike who didn't get served." Jeff Harvey, CEO of the $70 million burger chain, wants to do more. He says he even wants Gilbert's help in developing the new bike-through program. "It's a bit humbling," says Harvey, who has strived to build the chain's reputation around sustainability concerns — with 70% of its food ingredients coming from Oregon and Washington. "If we had it to do over again, we'd have designed a different response." Burgerville's drive-through sensors don't detect bicycles when they pull up, so for the short term, the chain will post signs at drive-throughs that tell bicyclists to go to the pick-up window to order. It's working on a better system for what Harvey calls "greener" drive-throughs. It may be too late, Lindstrom says. The "Twitter cycle" on this company's actions may have already come and gone, he says. "Corporate America is built on inflexibility, but Twitter is about turning things around in minutes. Few brands have prepared themselves for this." Or for Gilbert, the mommy bicyclist-turned-activist who finds the drive-through "safety" issue absurd. It's not dangerous, she says. Except maybe for businesses that shoo away bicyclists, she says. They may get tweeted.

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