Why Organic Restaurant Certification Matters

To raise accountability, more restaurants are taking the extra step of getting their entire business—not just certain menu items—certified as organic.

Serving giant fried chicken sandwiches and boasting the tagline “taste the revolution,” the Organic Coup opened quietly in Pleasanton, California last November. It’s a modest fast casual food joint from two former Costco executives, focusing on all things fried chicken (i.e., sandwiches, wraps, and bowls), but the restaurant has a bigger purpose: It’s the first certified organic fast food restaurant in the country. And when it opens its second location in downtown San Francisco later this month, the Organic Coup will bring its message to hundreds more people every day.

Many restaurants use certified organic ingredients and they’ve also long had the option to get their restaurants themselves certified too. It’s a time consuming process that has never gone mainstream. But as more consumers begin to investigate what they’re eating (and the odds that a restaurant might be making false claims about the source of its ingredients appear to be rising), interest in certified organic restaurants is growing.

Forty years ago, organic eating was the province of hippies and back-to-the-landers. When Nora Pouillon opened Washington, D.C.’s fine dining establishment Restaurant Nora in 1979, the term “organic” wasn’t even in the popular lexicon.

“When I said, ‘I use organic ingredients,’ my customers said, ‘It sounds like biology class,’” she recalls. Undeterred, Pouillon focused on diner education, explaining in person and on the menu that she sourced seasonal, “additive-free” food from local farmers.

A few decades later, “organic” was becoming more widely known, and her customers started asking what it meant to the restaurant and how they could be sure of her claims. Most of Restaurant Nora’s ingredients were certified organic at that point, and Pouillon wondered: What if she got the entire restaurant certified organic so she could show her customers that she was legit?

Such a thing had never been attempted before. Pouillon spent two years working with Oregon Tilth, an organization that certifies farms and other businesses, to establish a set of standards for restaurant certification. In 1997, nearly 20 years after opening, Restaurant Nora became the first certified organic restaurant in the United States.

A handful of others have since followed in Restaurant Nora’s footsteps, but it’s a small club that includes the Maria Hines restaurants in Seattle (Tilth, Golden Beetle, and Agrodolce), the shuttered GustOrganics in New York, Mind Body & Spirits in Michigan, and now the Organic Coup.  To become fully certified means that you pledge to not only source at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients, but also that your cleaning products, storage, prep, sanitation, pest management, and everything else falls under the guidelines.

For some seriously dedicated restauranteurs, however, it’s worth the extra time and effort. “This is about an outward expression of their focus and commitment to organic,” says Jake Lewin, president of California Certified Organic Food (CCOF) certification services. “It does hold their feet to the fire in terms of every last ingredient. The truly committed restaurateurs welcome that, bring it in, embrace it.”

Of course, any restaurant is allowed to put the word “organic” on the menu if it’s using organic ingredients, as many do even if they haven’t certified the whole place. Lewin says that’s fine with CCOF, which aims to promote organic food as a whole. He speaks to many restaurants that are interested in certification, but he often tells them to get the place open and humming along first and come back when everything is settled.

Because the truth is that opening and running a restaurant is hard enough without the extra layer of scrutiny. You have to keep meticulous records of your suppliers and they have to match up with your receipts. You have to supply the menus ahead of time, and have contingency plans if you run out of organic asparagus or some other seasonal ingredient because you can’t just run to the store to replace it. You have to make sure that all of your systems, from receiving to staff training to waste management, fall under the organic guidelines, and you have to be prepared for regular audits from your certification board. (For a sense of what is required, check out the organic restaurant certification application on the Oregon Tilth website.)

Unsurprisingly, these steps prove to be daunting for many would-be-restauranteurs. “We haven’t had many (who have gone through with it),” says Darian Jones of Oregon Tilth. “It was kind of a passing thing for a while there. People were testing the market they were in and seeing what that did to increase their business.”

Organic certification can be a business driver, but it can also be expensive and onerous, as Alberto Gonzales discovered when he opened New York’s first certified organic restaurant, GustOrganics in the West Village in 2008. GustOrganics was a passion project; Gonzales believes in the health and environmental benefits of organic eating, and thought that getting the entire restaurant certified would be a good way to keep him honest with his goals.

“It’s cheaper to do 50 or 75 percent organic than do 100 percent organic. It’s very easy to be tempted to cut corners,” he says. “I thought it would be a good statement to do it completely organic.”

Gonzales found that it was almost impossible to operate his restaurant in New York’s competitive dining scene. GustOrganics’ food costs were high, it had problems with complying with both the NYC Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and it was difficult to keep prices low enough to draw in diners. Looking back, he thinks that he needed much more capital than he started with to keep the restaurant afloat. But he also sees it as a learning process. He now mentors new restauranteurs and is the chief operating officer at an organic ingredient distribution company.

“I can continue to keep bringing organic food into the mainstream, which is what I’m passionate about,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest milestone for organic restaurants going mainstream came last year when the Organic Coup became the first fast food restaurant in the country to try the certification. Co-founder Erica Welton had seen the power of the certified organic label firsthand in her former life as a food buyer for Costco—she was the one who first brought organic milk, eggs, and produce into the stores. (Costco is now selling the most organic products in the country.)

When Welton left Costco and decided to pursue her new project, a chain of organic fast food chicken restaurants, she knew the importance of certification.

“People have so much confidence in that USDA logo,” she says. “In Costco, we’d mark all the USDA organic items with green signs, and we had moms telling us they’d only shop the green signs. There’s just a certain level of trust.”

Welton and co-founder Dennis Hoover, also a former Costco executive, worked with CCOF to get their fledgling fast food restaurant certified. They did it smartly, by only offering a few menu items—air-dried Mary’s organic fried chicken in a sandwich, wrap, or bowl, and slaw—and building systems with organic certification and scale in mind. They have ambitious expansion plans, opening a second and third location in downtown San Francisco in the coming months and aiming for 10 locations by the end of the year.

To CCOF and other organizations, the organic fast casual movement is promising. Fine dining restaurants like Restaurant Nora and Tilth are doing important work in showing diners what can be done, but they’re only accessible to a relatively small segment of the population. Along with the Organic Coup, chains like Amy’s Drive Thru, Tender Greens, and Sweetgreen say they are using some or mostly organic ingredients. But without the certification, it’s hard for consumers to know for sure.

There may never be an overwhelming number of certified organic restaurants, fast food or otherwise; the barriers to entry are just too high. But each one that opens will shed new light on the concept. And by bringing the growing practices and language associated with organic to a much more mainstream audience, chains like the Organic Coup will provide the ultimate testing ground. They might also make it easier for other businesses to do the same down the road.

“Fast casual restaurants are kind of perfect models for the organic system and organic certification,” says Lewin.

 

 

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