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The Power Of Bison As Muses For Social Change

How Ted Turner's bison restaurants, inspired by Montana, have cast big green ripples nationwide

"Bison on the Montana Plains" by Albert Bierstadt.  A signature of Ted's Montana Grills are fine art reproductions of classic 19th century paintings portraying the West, part of Turner's personal art collection. Photo courtesy Ted Turner
"Bison on the Montana Plains" by Albert Bierstadt. A signature of Ted's Montana Grills are fine art reproductions of classic 19th century paintings portraying the West, part of Turner's personal art collection. Photo courtesy Ted Turner
Imagine having Ted Turner as your business partner. George McKerrow, who has devoted a lot of time to thinking about the intersection of economy and ecology, was hand-picked nearly two decades ago to help co-launch Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants that feature bison on the menu. 

With nearly four dozen of the eateries in 16 states and employing 2000 people, few in Montana might realize that the Bozeman restaurant in the Baxter Hotel is one of the busiest. Not surprising perhaps given that Turner’s 113,000-acre Flying D Ranch, where the former media mogul’s relationship with bison began, is located just outside of town. 

Since the early days of his career in founding CNN and disrupting the power of the three major television networks by launching cable TV stations and delivering content more broadly via satellites—as well as his other ventures—Turner has always approached opportunities from a systemic perspective.

Of all the enterprises Turner has undertaken, his impact as a restauranteur may be the least recognized, but it is one of the most momentous in terms of influencing how business and the public think about sustainability, McKerrow says. “Believe it or not, I’m the only real partner he’s ever had in business, and I was proud to go out and create [Ted’s Montana Grill in 2002] to help bring the great American bison back to the dinner table where it belongs," he says.

From the ranch pastures and wildlands that surround them vertically integrated to the plates awaiting customers in the restaurants, McKerrow has found bison to be an instructive muse for pondering healthy food and healthy ways of approaching business. "I've certainly come to have profound respect for bison as keystone animals that created ecosystems," he notes. 

As the once mightiest native animal in the West, the 60,000 bison in Turner's herds being raised on ranches in six states can be important tools for fostering health of soils and native grasses. Turner's involvement with bison has helped raise public appreciation for Bison bison and fueled the successful campaign, coordinated with conservation groups and the National Bison Association, to have Congress declare it America's official national land mammal.  

If you eat a bison steak, burger, pot roast or meatloaf at a Ted's Montana Grill, changes are good that the animal came off a Turner ranch. Turner animals, which are not fed steroids or growth hormones, require less inputs than cattle and are high in protein and Omega 3 Fatty Acids. As part of their evolution, and as demonstrated at his ranches in Montana, they are capable of repelling predators like grizzlies, wolves, cougars and coyotes in ways that domestic cattle and sheep are not, thus not necessitating expensive predator control. 

As a food staple tied for thousands of years to the wellbeing of indigenous peoples on the plains, bison have grown in popularity. Although demand is increasing, bison remain a niche market compared to the cattle industry. 

For the vast majority of their lives, Turner bison served in the restaurants or sold via the label Great Range Bison are nourished on grasslands, which is easy during the non-winter months. In the last few months of their lives most are "finished" on grain; the hope is to one day make that no longer necessary.

Not long ago, I had a visit with McKerrow (see interview, below). 
George McKerrow, left, with Ted Turner, at the Ted's Montana Grill restaurant located at the Turner Building in downtown Atlanta. Photo courtesy Ted's Montana Grill
George McKerrow, left, with Ted Turner, at the Ted's Montana Grill restaurant located at the Turner Building in downtown Atlanta. Photo courtesy Ted's Montana Grill
Todd Wilkinson: What have you learned about Ted Turner that others may not know?

George McKerrow: A lot of people on the outside are quick to be judgmental about the man. He has, at times, been rather outspoken. For me, it comes down to this: I, like Ted, have always been a bit of a renegade. We’ve always been willing to try new things that maybe others thought couldn’t be accomplished. Ted is looking out for the betterment of the environment and the world in almost everything he does. 

TW: Describe your early objectives. 

McKerrow: Number one, to be in the restaurant and food service business while being environmentally conscious. And number two, taking into account the positive impact we could have on people’s lives, the environment, and particularly the health and well-being of the bison. Having Ted as a partner allowed all of those things to come to fruition because he believes that you can think sustainably, think environmentally, think consciously, and still be in a productive, profitable business. We’ve got all of that going for us with Ted’s Montana Grill. 

TW: What were your initial thoughts about serving bison and popularizing it as a native original meat staple of North America?

McKerrow: It’s an interesting story. I had been aware of what Ted was trying to do with the bison industry. He was out there promoting bison as native animals that ought to be brought back to the landscape and he wanted to use market forces to make it happen. We had three goals in mind. One was to bring bison to America’s table correctly so that the consumer would embrace it. By doing that, we believed the bison herd would be healthier, stronger, and more prolific on the landscape through animal husbandry. It wasn’t going to happen if they were only confined to zoos and parks. Number two, Ted wanted to create a bison industry, through bison ranching on his vast land holdings, as the mainstay and financial wherewithal for his family for generations. Number three, he wanted to create a restaurant company that we could both be proud of and would be culturally popular. Underlying all of this was his love for the animal, not as a commodity but bison as a species nearly wiped out and deserving of a second chance to reclaim a place on the landscape. 

TW: Have you succeeded in putting bison on the map of public consciousness? 

McKerrow: We have statistical proof that wherever we put a Ted’s Montana Grill and touted the healthy virtues of bison, we saw demand increase dramatically at the grocery store level. We opened restaurants from the Rockies to New York City and into corners of the Deep South. It led to a corresponding rise of public interest in bison and appreciation for them as American icons.

TW: You mentioned that among the goals of your restaurants is promoting healthy lands.

McKerrow: The focus is on caring for the land in a way that you have healthy grasslands, healthy soils, and clean water running through. Many people may not realize this, but healthy soils, grasslands, and forests function as significant sinks of carbon dioxide, which is important in trying to slow the effects of climate change. 
Bison graze on Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch southwest of Bozeman with the Spanish Peaks rising in the background.  The 6,000 bison on the Flying D are the largest herd in Greater Yellowstone, bigger even than the wild bison population in Yellowstone National Park.  Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Bison graze on Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch southwest of Bozeman with the Spanish Peaks rising in the background. The 6,000 bison on the Flying D are the largest herd in Greater Yellowstone, bigger even than the wild bison population in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
TW: You and Ted have tried to institutionalize “social good” at scale in the business world. Tell me how you garnered the support of the National Restaurant Association, best known as “the other NRA.”

 McKerrow: I was on the executive board of the NRA and it occurred to me after a while that we were basically a lobbying institution and didn’t really stand for anything positive as far as environmental social values were concerned. That kind of bothered me. I went to the chairman and those in leadership and said we ought to stand for something that protects the environment and benefits the lives of customers instead of only working against something such as regulations. Here we were a $900 billion industry. I said we ought to become more environmentally conscious and less wasteful. 

TW: How did you make the case? 

McKerrow: At the time, the restaurant industry used five times as much water as any other retail industry, five times as much energy, and we produced five times as much garbage and caused a tremendous negative impact on the environment. Leaders at the NRA agreed with me, and so we went to the Turner Foundation and got funding from Ted and his children for five straight years to create the “conserve movement” among restauranteurs nationwide. 
"Small steps forward by vast numbers of people create change in behaviors that become large scale. How do you change the world for the better? That’s how. If everyone is helping to make a heavy lift the weight of the task turns out not to be as daunting as you thought it would be."  —George McKerrow
TW: You’ve been described by leaders in the industry as a “sustainability evangelist.”

McKerrow: We’ve seen the industry turn 180 degrees. There are nearly one million restaurants in the U.S. that employ more than 13 million people and serve billions of meals. Between business owners and their employees, there's a huge opportunity to get people in the food service industry to think about sustainability. Their behavior, in turn, often is taken home and shared, like a pollinator effect with their family members and friends.  

TW: How has that translated?

McKerrow:  We know that other restauranteurs have watched what we've done as early adopters and incorporated them into their own best business practices .The sustainability moves that were implemented by us and a few others are responsible nationally for millions of tons of waste never having to enter a landfill, billions of gallons of water each year never being wasted, tons of material given new life as recycled products, tons of grease never going down a drain and instead being repurposed, tons of food never being thrown away and feeding people who need it. Doing what’s right benefits the bottom line and it cuts down on resource consumption. 

TW: Any metrics you'd like to share about Ted's Montana Grill in particular? You've become kind of famous for, of all things, what you've done with paper straws.

McKerrow: By bringing back paper straws, we've prevented more than 50 million plastic, non-biodegradable straws from ending up in landfills, waterways and oceans. It has resurrected use of the paper straw, known to previous generations before plastic, and even given rise to producers specializing in making them. We also use 100 percent compostable to-go cups and biomass cutlery made from cornstarch and tapioca.

Every year we're trying to do better. Last year alone, Ted's Montana Grill as a company helped convert four million gallons of grease into bio-diesel. Something simple, like using recycled butcher block paper on our table as an alternative to linen tablecloths, saved 1.5 million gallons of water.  Sorting on site enabled us to keep 336,000 pounds of food organics from going into local landfills and 370 tons of material were kept out of landfills due to recycling.
TW: Share some thoughts about what the amorphous word “sustainability” really means to you in practical terms. 

McKerrow: I really believe that when it’s presented as an all or nothing attitude, particularly when you are talking about environmental and sustainability objectives, you really lose the gains you might otherwise achieve. This isn’t about total perfection. Ted has said that if each of us and every business did one more impactful positive thing than negative thing every day, we’d be able to solve many of the major problems in the world. 

TW: You spent time as a boy with your grandparents on their farm in the Midwest. Where were the factors that contributed to your own evolution as a conservationist?

McKerrow: To be in the constellation of entities known as “the Turnerverse,” as I call it, is to be involved daily and annually with the Turner Foundation and all of the wonderful things that organization has done to promote conservation and advance healthy environments for all. I live along the Chattahoochee River that flows through Atlanta. It has been a focus of cleanup, and today I can wade out and catch bass. The Turners have played a vital role in improving the river and giving Atlantans of all socio-economic levels a connection to nature. Every year when I attend the annual meeting of the Turner ranch managers in Denver, I am just blown away by the number of things that are uniquely tested and proven to be environmentally conscious and good business practices. We’ve kept that at the forefront of our way of doing business at Ted’s Montana Grill. 
TW: Are there other companies out there inspire you?

McKerrow: There are a few that stand out. Patagonia is one. That's a company, it seems to me, whose ethic is visible in its leadership, its employees and the customers that its products appeal to.

TW: How do you assess other business values that come with sustainable thinking? 

McKerrow: Well, for one, it’s smart business because it saves us money and the foundation of sustainability is economic sustainability. For a long time there were people who portrayed conservation as a liability—that’s not true. But in order to support ongoing conservation initiatives you must have a way to pay for them and on the front end you need to do all you can to prevent problems from happening an strive for savings and efficiency. Being socially conscious positively affects the behavior and practices of the businesses and suppliers we partner with, and it has cemented a deeper relationship and more loyalty with our customers.

TW: What’s your message to consumers? 

McKerrow: Small steps forward by vast numbers of people create change in behaviors that become large scale. How do you change the world for the better? That’s how. If everyone is helping to make a heavy lift the weight of the task turns out not to be as daunting as you thought it would be.

TW: What satisfaction do you derive from being a business-minded green entrepreneur who encountered initial resistance from skeptics who have been turned into advocates?

McKerrow: We all owe it to ourselves and the next generation to protect clean air and water, make space for wildlife, and do what we can. On all the vehicles Ted drives, including his small Prius, he has a bumper sticker that reads, “Save Everything.” It used to be “Save the Humans” but the fate of everything is intertwined with the choices we make. We’re all stakeholders. As Ted has emphasized, doing right by the environment and each other gives us sustenance for the human soul.
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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