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R&IEditorial Archives2005February 15 — Special Report

Organics' Chemistry
Have organic foods traded in their niche status for a full-time kitchen gig? R&I’s 2005 Organic Food Study reveals how these costly-but-quality ingredients are becoming a point of pride for chefs in every segment.

Franny Stephens, namesake and co-owner of casual-chic Italian spot Franny’s in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, sums up her policy on organics with a simple declaration: “We use the highest-quality food, and we’re charging for it. We have no problem getting the money for it because people taste the difference.”

Stephens’ straightforward quality-over-cost approach captures the sentiment fueling a rapidly rising affinity among chefs for all things organic. The surging interest across foodservice—in kitchens from family to fine dining, noncommercial to chain—has helped grow organic foods into a multibillion-dollar market that has shed its niche tag once and for all.

No longer the domain of hippies and “health food,” sales of organics reached nearly $11 billion in 2003, growing at a 20% clip over the previous year, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). The Greenfield, Mass.-based group projects annual sales growth of 18% through 2008.

Restaurants & Institutions’ 2005 Organic Food Study, a comprehensive exploration of operators’ actions and attitudes regarding organics, bears out this data. Half of respondents say they currently use at least some organic products, with 29% of those operators planning to increase their use by year’s end.

“Five or 10 years ago organic food was just a fad, but now people realize its importance,” says Lance Warren, executive sous-chef at the St. Regis Hotel in Houston. “We demand the high quality [organics offer], and once customers know we demand it and they taste it, they can tell the difference.”

Vegetables and fruit top the list of organic products in operators’ kitchens, but organic options include meat, poultry, grains, starches and more. Four-unit O’Naturals’ sandwich (above) wraps free-range, all-natural chicken in organic flatbread and romaine lettuce, while the Amish Duck at True (below) features organic duck breast with confit over lentils, root vegetables and long-grain wild rice.

Who’s Going Organic?
Predictably, fine-dining restaurants such as those at the St. Regis are most likely to use organic products in the kitchen, at 69%; they are least common at casual/theme concepts, where one-third report using them.

In the noncommercial world, organic ingredients are in 47% of kitchens, reflecting the segment’s shift toward offering restaurant-style experiences. Research showing that adults 18 to 24 are more likely than the general population to purchase organic products make it little wonder such items are in demand at college and university campuses, but the trend has spread into areas from business and industry to sports stadiums and parks.

John Huey, director of sustainability and environmental affairs for Buffalo, N.Y.-based Delaware North Companies’ Parks & Resorts division in Modesto, Calif., says his division launched the company’s foray into organics in 2003, with Parks & Resorts accounts now offering at least two completely organic options on their spring and summer dinner menus. Delaware North’s Sportservice also has begun incorporating the ingredients at stadiums nationwide, and chefs in the company’s Gaming & Entertainment and CA One Services airport division have received training on organics.

While the degree to which organics have been incorporated in noncommercial segments may be somewhat unexpected, perhaps more of a surprise is the relatively small difference in organic usage at chains versus independent restaurants, with 43% of the former purchasing organics compared to 52% of the latter.

A quick look around the industry shows that sourcing and distribution challenges that can make organic purchasing difficult for multi-unit operations aren’t keeping chains such as Minneapolis-based The Oceanaire Seafood Room, Emeryville, Calif.-based Napa Valley Grille and Portland, Maine-based O’Naturals from testing the waters.

“We try to stick with organics as much as we can,” says Katie Doherty, leader of Napa Valley Grille’s chef learning center and proprietor of its Yountville, Calif., location, where organic products include honey, greens and berries.

Mac McCabe, co-founder, president and CEO of four-unit O’Naturals, says about 30% of the chain’s menu uses organic ingredients even though menu items or price points can’t change according to availability as independents can. The concept’s signatures include organic smoothies and sandwiches stacked with organic beef on flatbread made from organic flour, honey, sea salt, olive oil and yeast.

A Vote for Vegetables
Among operators who buy organic foods, more than 80% say they purchase organic vegetables. Fruit is also purchased by more than half of those buying organic foods.

Operations still out of organics’ reach are national chain companies such as Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, Dallas-based Brinker International and Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp., none of which currently use organic products systemwide. Nevertheless, the idea is not off the long-term radar for such chains.

Darden’s single-unit test concept Seasons 52 serves a rotating menu based on seasonal ingredients. Several selections feature organic options including mushrooms, arugula, braising greens, peaches and micro-greens.

“We do not use organic products at our larger business units [Olive Garden and Red Lobster],” says Deborah Robison, director of media and communications at Seasons 52. “However, all of the operating companies are evaluating the learning we are getting from Seasons 52, including the use of organic products. We will determine how best to translate these findings companywide.”

Why Do They Buy?
For culinarians like Nick Oltarsh, executive chef at Atlanta neighborhood dining institution Murphy’s, purchasing organic components has little to do with claims of healthfulness or devotion to trends.

“It’s really all a matter of taste. If you get an organic radish, it’s that much tastier than a radish you buy in a cellophane bag,” says Oltarsh, who like many organic proponents ties this dedication with supporting local farms.

Such conviction of organics’ superiority is widely held, with R&I’s study citing quality and freshness as the top motivators for purchasing the products, at 29%. The second most common reason: customer demand, at 27%.

Why Do You Buy Organics?
Perceived improvement in quality and freshness is the No. 1 reason foodservice operators who buy organics say they do so, with customer demand for organics a close second.
The Sticking Points
Half the respondents to the Reed Research Group/R&I Organic Food Study say they don’t currently buy organic foods. Perceived higher prices for organics is the most common reason given for not opting for organics.

Interest on the consumer level is indisputable, as evidenced by OTA data showing that 44% of organic foods sold in 2003 came from supermarkets and grocery stores. This is especially true among college-age customers, who often find themselves ahead of the general population on such topics.

At Claremont McKenna College, a Bon Appétit Management Co. account in Claremont, Calif., Executive Chef Doug Stevens says organics are important to the student population. He most often earmarks the ingredients for popular vegan and vegetarian dishes such as stuffed zucchini and jambalaya, but regularly incorporates them into more mainstream items such as pizza and crpes as well.

Seasonal entreés at Darden’s Seasons 52 concept include grilled grouper served on fennel risotto with organic candy-striped and golden beets.

Quality and customer demand notwithstanding, 13% of respondents to R&I’s survey point to perceived nutritious or healthful qualities of organic products as their top reason for purchasing the products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventional ingredients, but that doesn’t stop believers who say it offers a better alternative. Proponents cite government regulations that prohibit the use of synthetic chemicals in organic crops and antibiotics and hormones in livestock production.

“I don’t think our bodies should consume any kind of chemicals,” says Warren at the St. Regis. “If we can avoid that, it will be better for us.”

Spreading the Word
More than half of operators who feature organic ingredients opt not to indicate so on menus, but for many, organic principles serve as points of pride and opportunities to educate. Hence 28% of R&I respondents call out items using organic ingredients on menus, while 19% communicate their organic policies.

True, A Pure Dining Experience, which recently opened serving regional cuisine at the Admiral Fell Inn in Baltimore, allocates half of its four-page menu to a mission statement. One page describes the concept’s partnership with local farmers and community-supported agriculture, while the second discusses its dedication to providing organic products.

At Napa Valley Grille, customers learn how their meals get from farm to plate, whether organic or not, says Doherty.

“Guests are so intrigued by it,” she says. “They want to know where their food is coming from more than in the past.”

100% Organic? Not Likely
Chains aren’t the only operations to use organics sparingly. Overall, organic offerings seldom account for menu majorities, making up 50% or more of items at only 17% of chains, independents and noncommercial operations alike. Organics most often make up less than one-fifth of options, with 63% of all respondents employing organics in 1% to 19% of selections. This figure trends somewhat higher in the noncommercial sector, at 73%.

For many operators, sourcing limitations rather than preference dictate these percentages. Such is the case for newcomer Chair 8, a 2-month-old restaurant in Telluride, Colo. It includes organics in 25% to 35% of its comfort-food plates, but Chef and co-owner Jake Linzinmeir plans eventually to raise that figure to 50%.

“Producers aren’t really geared up yet,” he says. “Right now they aren’t prepared to meet the demands of restaurants. That’s steadily going to get better.”

Organic Standards: The Real Deal
Though the term is used casually, “organic” is not to be taken lightly. Growers and producers of such products must follow strict U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines or risk penalties of up to $10,000 per violation. So what makes food truly organic? Full details are available at, but the main guidelines are as follows, according to the USDA’s National Organic Program:
Organic farming systems virtually exclude the use of synthetic chemicals in crop production and prohibit the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock production.
Standards also prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation and the feeding of mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products to mammals or poultry.
Producers must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.
Producers must implement crop rotation including but not limited to sod, cover crops, green manure crops, and catch crops.
Each production operation that produces or handles crops, livestock, livestock products or other agricultural products that are intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as “100% organic,” “organic” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s))” must be certified by the proper authorities, with the exception of operations whose gross agricultural income from organic sales totals $5,000 or less annually (those producers still must comply with the applicable organic production and handling requirements).

While retail food establishments that handle organically produced agricultural products do not require certification, a handful of restaurants including Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., and Sterling Café in Seattle have chosen to undergo the process.

“So many restaurants are saying they’re organic [but are] using maybe 10% of organic ingredients; we decided to separate ourselves from them by getting certified,” says Sterling Café chef-owner Don Wilson. “I have to search the Internet sometimes to find importers and different suppliers to get the sources I need, but it’s getting easier and easier.”

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