Eateries grapple with question of organic certification

Although restaurants in the United States offering organic food don’t need to be certified to do so, one fast casual restaurant has chosen that route to become the first USDA certified organic fast food restaurant chain in the nation—a fact it has trademarked.

Organic Trade Association member The Organic Coup, which opened its first restaurant in November 2015 in Pleasanton, CA, had already grown to 13 operations as of the end of 2017. Most are in Northern California, although the last one that opened is in Bellevue, Washington.

Co-founders Erica Welton and Dennis Hoover are two former Costco executives. It was there that they began to make their mark on incorporating organic products for consumers. Hoover, who was Senior Vice president for the Northern California region and eventually retired after 33 years with the company, had noticed that sales figures were flattening out for conventional offerings. Hoover posed the question, “What are you buying from other retailers that you can’t get with us?”

Welton, who had recently come on board as food buyer for Costco, came back to the buying group and talked about purchasing organic milk for her family at Whole Foods. With their guidance, Costco began offering organic milk and other organic products. The results were enormously positive, and over time, Costco’s sales from organic products grew to $5 billion a year.

“We really felt it was the right thing to do to address environmental and health concerns,” said Welton, a mom, who buys organic products for her family.

Over time, they saw a huge shift in Costco shoppers’ buying patterns from iconic brands to certified organic products.

“It was exciting to see that trend, and it gave us insight for our future endeavor,” said Hoover.

After leaving Costco, Welton and Hoover have received invaluable support from former colleagues. In 2016, The Organic Coup raised $7 million in an initial round of financing led by Costco founder and former CEO Jim Sinegal. In addition, Costco’s Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti also participated in the round of funding. This investment has enabled them to open the many locations they have in this short time.

One of the strategies for seeking organic certification was to develop a menu that offered a limited number of items that were readily available organically and locally.

“We wanted to be certified because we wanted customers to have the confidence that everything is sourced organically. Since restaurants don’t have to be certified, our point was, ‘How would consumers know that you are all organic?’” said Welton.

The two chose to offer healthier fast food because of consumers’ time constraints and the lack of outlets offering certified organic products. Their road to certification was relatively short. They started the process with CCOF Certification Services in July 2015. On November 10 of that year, they opened their first operation fully certified.

Their model is easily scalable—making it possible to make the whole chain earn certification. The menu centers on organic air-chilled chicken breasts cooked in coconut oil and served with spicy pre-packaged shredded organic vegetables as a sandwich, a wrap or a bowl. All dressings are organic, as are the beverages served. Other offerings include organic popcorn covered in caramel and drizzled in chocolate, organic tater tots, organic breakfast burritos, and organic açai bowls co-branded with Sambazon.

One major milestone for The Organic Coup is its presence at the AT&T Ball Park, home of the San Francisco Giants—the first baseball stadium to offer a menu featuring all USDA certified organic options.

“We have already served 40,000 fans at events there,” said Welton. Because of this success, they plan to open two other locations at the park.

“This is our breakout model. You have to have the right location and the customer volume,” said Welton.

Welton and Hoover have researched the geographic “hot pockets” for people seeking organic products throughout the country. Their eventual goal is to be in such places as Colorado, Texas, Oregon, Florida, and the Northeast—and maybe some international spots. Right now, they anticipate they may reach 25 to 30 locations by the end of 2019.

Even though they have already received over 1,000 requests for franchises, they have chosen not to go that route at this point. Instead, they are building the operations they have, taking steps to help consumers appreciate organic as a choice, and making sure their employees are treated fairly.

In addition to “wanting to serve customers ‘clean food,’” the two founders have taken measures to fairly compensate their employees with hourly rates as high as $16 an hour in some markets.

Organic café

Meanwhile, Gwyn Whittaker is CEO and owner of Organic Trade Association member GreenFare Organic Café, a certified organic eatery in Herndon Centre in Fairfax County, Virginia, that opened in November 2015. Unlike The Organic Coup, GreenFare Organic Café is a full-service restaurant.

Whittaker explains that it took significant time and investment to go through the certification process, but she and Pericles Silva, the company’s operations manager, felt it was a critical step for the business.

“It was all about differentiation for our customers,” says Whittaker.

In addition to preparing all organic meals, GreenFare serves food that is 100 percent plant-based and free of added oil, salt and sugar

The business offers cooking classes, lectures, book signings, and documentary screenings to inspire and educate its customers about the benefits of a plant-based diet and to teach them about how to cook with whole grains and legumes, and without added salt, oil and sugar. Its meal delivery service is based on the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine program, “21 Day Kick-Start Your Health Weight Loss,” with classes and 21 days of lunch and dinner entrees that are local, seasonal, freshly prepared and organic.

Whittaker, who lost a partner to heart disease before going into the restaurant business, promotes the program that she says teaches people to change their diets, “leaving out items that are known to cause health problems and to cook with whole plants.”

“The motto is to eat with a fork, and avoid the scalpel,” she quips. She adds that Silva, who worked as a sports nutritionist at Whole Foods Market, joined her to open the restaurant to promote a healthier lifestyle for its clientele, helped work to pursue certification, and has trained the restaurant’s chefs to adopt the healthier cooking practices.

Popular spot for organic fast food

In July 2015, Amy’s Drive Thru opened in Rohnert Park, California, as the first organic drive thru fast food restaurant in the United States. It features organic as well as gluten-free and vegan fast food. The fare it sells is almost completely made using certified organic ingredients, but the restaurant itself isn’t certified organic.

“We considered certification, and we are still interested in pursuing it,” said Paul Schiefer, Director of International Operations and Restaurant Operations for Amy’s Kitchen.

The reason for not being certified, he explained, is not due to cost but rather that restaurant certification for a complex restaurant operation such as Amy’s Drive Thru is challenging. Instead, Amy’s is exploring another option such as certification as a retailer that might be more feasible to achieve.

The vast majority of its products are 100 percent organic, from burgers and pizzas, to salads and fries.

“Organic is such a deeply held value of Amy’s that we never thought about doing it any other way than using organic ingredients,” said Schiefer. “And, we know how to incorporate organic practices. We already have the robustness of our processes—from cleaning and process testing—but it is just not clear how the requirements would apply under the current restaurant certification standards.”

Amy’s is now in the permitting process to open a similar operation in Corte Matera, CA, in late 2018 or early 2019. The 4,200-square-foot fast food restaurant will use the same concept and menu.

We’ll be bringing the same experience to another community,” Schiefer said, predicting there will be other locations in the future as the company determines the right communities for future operations and works out the logistics.

“We believe this is a great concept and have seen that it is loved by our customers,” he added.

During the fury of wildfires...

As wildfires whipped through neighborhoods in Northern California in October, staff at Amy’s Drive Thru in Rohnert Park heroically provided food to those showing up in the fast food parking lot after being forced from their homes.

The wildfires devastated nearby communities. On Sunday night, many of the residents in the area were warned to evacuate, including many of the company’s employees. In the morning, cars of families with children dressed in their pajamas filled the parking lot. A skeleton crew of employees from Amy’s headed to the restaurant to help prepare food.

“We provided free food to anyone who had lost their family home. We also cooked burritos to give to the front line firefighters. It was a real effort by our employees—some of whom didn’t even know as they worked if their own homes were still standing,” said Paul Schiefer, Director of International Operations and Restaurant Operations for Amy’s Kitchen.

“People showing up were hungry and very scared. We saw kids in pajamas, clutching a teddy bear they had managed to salvage and no home to go back to. Even though not on our menu, our staff made homemade ice cream sundaes from ingredients we had on hand, which brought smiles from the children, in addition to the other items we offer.”

Helping those affected by the local wildfires “turned out to be a two-week effort on our part. People came together in the midst of adversity. I really thank all of our team who made us proud,” he added. 

Specializing in beef

Organic burger chain Elevation Burger, which opened its first operation in 2002, is one of the rare U.S. fast food chains featuring USDA certified organic grass-fed beef.

While The Organic Coup focuses primarily on certified organic chicken, Elevation Burger’s mainstay products are organic beef burgers. The menu also includes certified organic chicken as well as “made with organic” veggie burgers and a variety of organic beverages. Elevation Burger’s individual restaurant operations, as permitted by the NOP, do not currently pursue organic handler certifications.

“We have looked at it several times. But the restaurant industry is so bottom-line driven, and the hamburger business is very competitive with burger places everywhere. We need to remain competitive with other operations that are not organic,” explained Michael Berger, a Founding Partner and VP of Supply Chain for Elevation Burger. “We follow the protocols for safeguarding the organic integrity of our products, but for a small restaurant operation, where pennies make the difference between success and failure, it remains costly to pursue.”

Elevation Burger, instead, looks to offering the highest quality meat at about the same price as the non-organic competition.

“It is difficult for us to balance our marketing, brand and operational goals while also building our consumers’ education and awareness around organic. Our consumers are only spending a small amount of their day with us so we suffer from a limited ability to dive deep into all the qualities of our products,” he said, adding, “That is why we see the significant value of an organic check-off. Raising consumer attention to the attributes of organic that ultimately will benefit the businesses that are embracing and spending the extra money on those products. An organic check-off would be very valuable as we—nor really any other organic business—don’t have the advertising budget that would be necessary to provide general education to consumers about the qualities and attributes of organic.”

Elevation Burger estimates that approximately one third of its customer base gravitates to the chain because of organic or aspects of organic attributes. Some may visit because they are aware of the attributes of no use of antibiotics, and some respond to the idea that they are products without GMOs. But oftentimes, consumers are not always aware that organic carries all of the attributes they are seeking—from no-GMOs and grass-fed to no antibiotics.

The chain has grown its organic beef supply program into the largest such program for any restaurant group in the United States and one of the largest organic beef programs of any U.S. retailer. The company has historically collaborated with farmers and ranchers to sponsor certification of their herds to grow their supply, resulting in a purchasing program that includes over 100 different family farms.

There are currently 60 Elevation Burger restaurants domestically and internationally, with those overseas concentrated in the Middle East.

“When the first international locations opened in Kuwait, you really couldn’t get USDA organic beef anywhere else in country. We found consumers there were—and still are—very interested in USDA Organic certified beef. They are very enthusiastic about buying our burgers because of the quality attributes we offer,” said Berger,

Elevation Burger expects to add five more restaurants during 2018. 

Meanwhile, at McDonald’s...

McDonalds announced that it would start carrying Honest Kids products in its Happy Meals in November 2017.

“This is a big deal for the organic movement,” Seth Goldman who co-founded Honest Tea about two decades ago, noted, adding that this will be a step to help cut calories as Honest Kids beverages offer only 35 calories. “Without Coca-Cola’s relationships, Honest Kids would not have been able to gain access to the customer and to the global supply chain to make this opportunity come to fruition. I’ve knocked on enough doors to know that a pleasant smile is not enough to secure and guarantee supply contracts from organic apple farmers from Argentina to Turkey,” he wrote in his blog. He added, “This is how change happens—one menu item at a time, one meal at a time. And we couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of it!”

A year ago it was announced that Honest Kids six-ounce organic juice boxes were now being sold at Subway restaurants nationwide as part of the chain’s Fresh Fit for Kids Meal menu. // 

Barbara Haumann is Senior Writer/Editor for the Organic Trade Association.