Why certification of organic restaurants is important
Serving giant fried chicken sandwiches and featuring the slogan ‘taste the revolution’ the Organic Blow quietly opened in Pleasanton, Calif., last November. This is a humble, casual fast-food restaurant from two former Costco executives, with a focus on all things fried chicken (i.e. sandwiches, wraps, and bowls), but the restaurant has a bigger goal: it is 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 have also long had the option of having their restaurants certified themselves. It is a long-term process that has never been generalized. But as more and more consumers start to investigate what they eat (and the chances of a restaurant being make false statements on the source of its ingredients seem to be increasing), interest in certified organic restaurants is increasing.
Forty years ago, organic food was the preserve of hippies and back-to-the-landers. When Nora Pouillon opened the Washington, DC dining establishment Nora Restaurant in 1979, the term “organic” was not even in the popular lexicon.
“When I said, ‘I use organic ingredients,’ my clients said, ‘It looks like a biology class,’ she recalls. Undeterred, Pouillon focused on dinner education, explaining in person and on the menu that she sources “additive-free” seasonal foods from local farmers.
A few decades later, “organic” was becoming more and more famous and its customers began to ask what it meant for the restaurant and how they could be sure of its claims. Most of Restaurant Nora’s ingredients were certified organic at that time, and Pouillon wondered: what if she got all of restaurant certified organic so that it can show its customers that it is legitimate?
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 the certification of restaurants. In 1997, almost 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 closed GustOrganics in New York, Mind Body & Spirits in Michigan, and now the Organic Coup. Becoming fully certified means that you not only commit to sourcing at least 95% certified organic ingredients, but also that your cleaning products, storage, prep, sanitation, pest control and everything in between are conform to guidelines.
For some serious restaurateurs, however, it’s worth the extra time and effort. “This is an outward expression of their focus and commitment to organic,” says Jake Lewin, president of California Certified Organic Food (CCOF) certification services. “It keeps their feet on fire in terms of every last ingredient. Really committed restaurateurs welcome it, bring it in, embrace it.
Of course, any restaurant is allowed to put the word “organic” on the menu if they use organic ingredients, as many do even if they haven’t certified the whole place. Lewin says it’s good with CCOF, which aims to promote organic food as a whole. He talks to many restaurants interested in certification, but he often tells them to open the place and hum first and come back when it’s all sorted out.
Because the truth is, opening and running a restaurant is hard enough without an extra layer of control. You must keep meticulous records of your suppliers and they must match your receipts. You need to provide menus in advance and have contingency plans if you run out of organic asparagus or another seasonal ingredient because you can’t just run to the store to replace them. You need to make sure that all of your systems, from reception to staff training to waste management, comply with organic guidelines, and you need to be prepared for regular audits of your certification board. (To get an idea of what is required, check out the Organic Restaurant Certification application on the Oregon Tilth website.)
Unsurprisingly, these steps prove to be intimidating for many potential restaurateurs. “We didn’t have a lot of them (that made it all the way),” says Darin 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 it did to increase their business. “