When Carol Debberman dished up her first batch of organic vegan burgers, she didn’t know she was on her way to creating a one-of-a-kind eco-business. But her five kids loved them and so did her friends. And as more people began asking Debberman to cook burgers for them, she realized that she might be on to something.
Debberman saw a demand for tasty pre-made vegetarian food—and began building her own veggie-burger company. Today, Debberman and her partner, John Hiler, co-own Sunshine Burgers, a company that brings sunflower-based burgers to tables across America.
Sunshine Burgers come in six flavors. Beyond the Original veggie burger are three variations—Garden Herb, Barbecue and Southwest. And they’ve just introduced two new products—Falafel and Breakfast patties. “They all taste totally different,” observes Debberman. The one thing they have in common is that they contain only simple, natural, wholesome ingredients. The Original-style burgers, for example, are made from just brown rice, raw sunflower seeds, carrots, herbs and sea salt.
“I use real food, not stuff that comes from a processing plant, not soy concentrate or textured vegetable protein. My stuff comes directly from the farm,” says Debberman. “Our motto is: ‘From farms to your table.’ That’s basically how I learned to cook.”
Sunshine Burgers don’t use soy or wheat in their products, an advantage for consumers with allergies. All of the ingredients are listed on the burger boxes and all of them, notes Hiler, are ingredients you can pronounce.
“This is really simple food. It’s not high in fat; it has vegetable fat, something your body needs,” says Debberman. “It’s really easy to digest and it has a lot of nutrients.”
To build her business, Debberman started out over 25 years ago peddling small packages of heat-and-serve burgers to health-food restaurants in northern New Jersey. Today, Sunshine Burgers are available nationally in the frozen-food sections of stores that include Whole Foods.
Entrepreneurship runs in Debberman’s family; her grandfather ran a tire store and her father sold exotic plants that he grew in six greenhouses. “The thought of making your own money runs in the family,” she says. “You’ve got to make money, you do what you know. What do I know? I know how to make veggie burgers.”
Growing up in rural New Jersey, Debberman learned to cook in her family’s farm kitchen. Even as a child, she preferred not to eat meat and used to surreptitiously swap her chicken and beef for her brother’s vegetables, but she didn’t become an official vegetarian until she moved out of her family home. Always interested in healthful eating, Debberman says that as a vegetarian, she knew she needed to learn about nutrition to eat a balanced diet. “I read a lot of books and found out about what nutrients foods had.”
Debberman cooked healthy vegetarian meals for herself and her children, even sprouting sunflower seeds and making her own baby formulas. Craving the texture and chewiness of meat, she began experimenting with vegetarian ways to create burgers.
“I started grinding up different nuts and seeds and mixing them,” she says. She formed patties and baked them, but even though the patties didn’t contain any meat, they had a satisfying color and texture because of their ingredients. “The natural oil causes it to brown on the outside and it’s chewy.”
As Debberman was deluged with requests from friends for the healthy burgers, she realized that she had a product she could sell, especially since there were then few pre-made vegetarian entrees available commercially. She began dropping the burgers off at snack bars near her home in New Jersey. When store owners and their patrons tried the burgers and loved them, Debberman would return to ask how many more they would like.
Every day she extended her route of restaurants, going a little farther down the highway toward New York. “One day I went into the city,” she remembers. “Every block has a bar and pizza place, every few blocks has a healthy restaurant with a snack bar. I thought, this is really cool.” Debberman packed up her kids and moved to New York City. She worked a deal with a health-food bakery in Greenwich Village so she could bake her burgers there. But Debberman wanted to move back to the country, so after living in Manhattan for a few years, she moved to Ellenville, NY. Soon she was baking her burgers in a bakery there.
Debberman met Hiler after moving to Ellenville, and the two drew on his experience and ideas to grow the business. Today the company distributes its products to a national market. Despite its growth, Sunshine Burgers stays true to Debberman’s original vision: providing tasty, good-for-you burgers.
The environmental benefits of her vegan burgers have always been important to Debberman, just as eco-friendliness was a consideration when she became a vegetarian. “I’m a country girl,” she relates, “so thinking green is natural. I’ve always had a consciousness of not wasting anything, and a respect for the planet.”
Using organic ingredients, says Debberman, helps the Earth’s sustainability. “When farming is organic, they use natural methods to keep the soil alive,” she says. “With chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they kill microbes in the soil and actually kill the soil itself. Organic farmers rotate the crops. They feed the soil, they keep it alive.” Debberman also points out that chemicals used in nonorganic farming get washed into our rivers and seas. “There are actually dead zones in our waterways the size of the state of New Jersey, with no fish.”
Being a vegetarian, says Debberman, helps preserve the planet. She observes that vegetarians use much less of the Earth’s water, energy and land resources than their carnivorous cousins. For example, vegetarians require only about one acre of land for every 10 that meat-eaters need to obtain the same quantity of protein in their diets.
Debberman gets a kick out of seeing her product in stores from coast to coast. But her highest priority remains the concept that launched her into business in the first place: she loves providing people with a healthy vegetarian choice for their meals. “I like that it’s good for people.”