For the past year, a Minneapolis housepainter has been using his weapon of choice, the fax machine, to bombard the public and media with thousands of fliers decrying Boston Chicken's lack of environmental awareness. But don't mistake Frank Erickson for just an environmentalist. He considers himself a modern-day crusader.
Erickson's beef with Golden-based Boston Chicken Inc., which owns the rapidly expanding Boston Market chain, stems from the company's use of heavy-duty plastics and its apparent failure to implement chain-wide recycling of these plates, utensils and dish covers. Boston Chicken and plastics, however, are only his latest target.
And he runs a less-than-shoestring operation. Some corporate PR people may blanch when they see the fax banner of Peterson Hardware in Minneapolis, but that's because Erickson doesn't have his own machine and shoots his arrows from the same place where he buys his paint. His fliers, however, are as sophisticated as those from environmental groups. They're often quite newsy, in fact. A past flier pointed out that although Minneapolis/ St. Paul was the top urban recycling area in the country, none of the Boston Markets there did any recycling.
"Why is Boston Market using plastic anyway?" the flier asked. "McDonald's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken all use paper. McDonald's stopped using styrofoam containers for their burgers years ago, after taking a lot of heat from environmental groups. So why would a new franchise like Boston Market come out in the '90s using plastic? And then not even attempt to recycle it?"
Erickson's flier, aimed directly at Boston Market customers, also asked, "What good does it do if individuals like us recycle their plastic at home every day when corporations like Boston Market dump tons of plastic into landfills in just one day? In the fight against pollution, this is unacceptable." It ended with the chain's phone number and a parting shot: "This is a corporate crime and more importantly a crime against the environment. The corporate office for Boston Market is in Colorado, and Colorado is where all the plastic originates."
And Colorado, ironically, is where the company moved (from Chicago) in 1994 to satisfy the nature-loving ways of its founder, Scott Beck, who has had a reputation for being environmentally conscious.
Boston Chicken officials definitely are Erickson-conscious. But has his campaign worked? Well, the company is changing its recycling policies, although a spokeswoman insists that Boston Chicken launched its "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle" program before they ever heard of Erickson.
"It wasn't like, 'Oh, Frank Erickson called, we'd better get on this,'" says Kelly Jorgenson. "Recycling has been part of our company's plans since its beginning, and we will continue to try and find new solutions to this problem."
The company, she adds, is now testing an in-store recycling program in its Illinois restaurants and has begun using plates that consist of 12 percent less plastic along with napkins and plastic dome covers that are composed of 100 percent recycled material. Jorgenson says the company has made "significant progress" in the past year.
Meanwhile, the 36-year-old Erickson continues his campaign. And he's likely to find other causes as well. He wasn't always this interested in pointing out corporate indifference. "I used to be pretty meek when it came to things," he says. But that changed a few years ago when he got fed up with top-rated Minneapolis morning radio show KRQS's relentless racial taunting of TV sportscaster Russell Shimooka, who's of Asian descent. Erickson wrote a biting letter to a Minneapolis newspaper in protest of the station's behavior, and before he knew it, his crusade against injustice had begun.
A consumer reporter for a Minneapolis TV station who has worked with Erickson on several occasions recalls the incident: "The morning show was doing some really tasteless 'Tora! Tora! Tora!'/'chopstick' b.s. on the air, and Frank's eloquent letter basically shamed them into stopping." The reporter describes Erickson as "a voice in the wilderness" and adds, "He's got no ax to grind besides personal conviction, and that's refreshing to see."
Erickson got more than plaudits for his defense of Russell Shimooka. He recalls getting hate mail, too. In any case, he was inspired. "I got a real feeling of empowerment," Erickson recalls, "and after that I sort of got caught up in doing whatever seemed right."
Next on Erickson's hit list was NAPA, the auto-parts chain. A female friend of Erickson's brought him a copy of the chain's magazine for customers called The Parts Pump. Erickson says he was offended by the scantily clad women pictured in The Pump, as well as by its sexist jokes.
"These jokes were just disgusting," says Erickson. "I showed them to some of my friends who did stand-up comedy, and they said they wouldn't even use them on stage." Frank was soon on the phone with NAPA headquarters in Atlanta. After several rounds of calls, Erickson claims, NAPA agreed to discontinue the magazine. (Denver NAPA stores dispute this, saying that The Pump still comes out every month; NAPA spokespeople in Atlanta say they've never heard of Erickson or his protest against the magazine.)
Boston Chicken, his current foe, aroused Erickson's ire when he ate at one of the chain's restaurants about a year ago. "Some friends of mine told me to go check it out," he recalls, "and I was really upset and angry when I saw how much plastic they were throwing away. I sat outside the restaurant all day and just couldn't believe the amount of plastic, plates and stuff that the company claims people take home and reuse which was just thrown in the trash." (The company says some of its plates and utensils are dishwasher-safe and can be reused.)
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Erickson reluctantly admits that the food at Boston Market is "awesome," but the chain is unlikely to satisfy him ever again. Company spokeswoman Jorgenson, while insisting that "we're happy that there are people like Frank out there who are working to save the environment," says plastics are in the company's future. "When he says that we should simply stop using plastics, he's not taking into account the fact that we can't sacrifice quality," she says. "Our customers want to get home with hot food."
Judging from Erickson's history, that just means he'll continue to crank out the hot faxes. "Sometimes I start to doubt myself," he says. "I know it's gonna be hard to get Boston Chicken to change. My friends say 'Lighten up, Frank,' but we can't continue to accept this trash society without question. It simply has to change."
He's even tried to enlist the Environmental Defense Fund in his fight. But the EDF, which was instrumental in pressuring McDonald's to find alternatives to styrofoam packaging, has not responded to Erickson's clarion call. Jackie Prince-Roberts of the EDF's Washington, D.C., office explains that her organization hasn't targeted any other restaurants since its involvement with McDonald's. The EDF's main goal, she says, "is to help develop solutions, then put them out into the public so others can follow our lead."
Erickson shrugs off this explanation, saying the EDF might not want to support him because his approach to Boston Chicken is "too radical and in your face." He also notes that in Minneapolis, the EDF office is on the same block as a Boston Market. EDF officials, he suggests, might not want to "bite the hand that feeds them.