2009 March: Seeking Green

2009 March: Seeking GreenBob Marshall, owner and chef of Biga Pizza in Missoula, Montana, can just about tell you where everything you’re eating at his restaurant comes from and how it was treated in its short life. For the most part, the food is organic, and whenever possible, it comes from within a few hundred miles of his restaurant.

For Marshall, it’s the best thing possible. His pizza and other dishes are fresh, pesticide free and perceived to be better for his customers. And it conjures creativity.

When a farmer shows up with food he wasn’t anticipating, if he wants to buy it, he has to find a way to make something his customers will happily pay for. Last winter, he got a great buy on organic cherries at $100 for a five-gallon bucket. He made chutney with the cherries and used it all winter as the sauce on a pizza topped with homemade sausage and smoked gouda. When he ran out of cherries, he took it off the menu –– and received a host of threatening e-mails. “I think that most people love our food because it’s delicious,” Marshall says. “The fact that we’re organic makes it only more delicious.”

Organic food appears to be more than a trend. It’s growing by leaps and bounds every year, with no signs of stopping. The industry grew by 21 percent to reach $17.7 billion in consumer sales in 2006, the latest numbers available from the Greenfield, Massachusetts-based Organic Trade Association (OTA).

It stands to reason that as Americans are examining more closely what they’re buying at the grocery store, and where it comes from, that they’d be thinking about the food they eat at restaurants, too. Organic foods are finding their way onto restaurant menus across the country, says Barbara Houmann, press secretary for the OTA.

At one time, the movement was concentrated on the east and west coasts. But now, it seems relatively universal, Houmann says. She gets calls from reporters in various locations all over the country who have interviewed organic farmers or retailers and want to know more about what it means to be organic. “It’s a combination of health, awareness and being exposed to products where they shop that has spurred the industry,” Houmann says of the increased interest in organic food.

The biggest challenge for organic pizza restaurants interviewed for this story appears to be sourcing certain ingredients. Pizza Fusion, the organic pizza chain based in Fort Lauderdale, has to push to find some organic items in particular regions, says Ashley Rathgeber, supply chain and distribution source development director for Pizza Fusion.

For a recently opened Pittsburgh restaurant, organic sodas, beer and wine were tough to come by, particularly for alcohol, mainly because of Pennsylvania’s stringent alcohol laws. The chain has also struggled to get organic artichoke hearts in a food service quantity. “They are in little sixounce jars,” Rathgeber says. “That’s not good for the environment or for the stores.”

But those types of problems seem to be slowly disappearing. Rathgeber has noticed that she now has several food service providers offering organic food products, rather than just one. At each restaurant, though, Pizza Fusion strives to work with local providers, because it’s good for the environment to keep “food miles” down and because the food quality is often better. “Sometimes organic food will seem like it’s a really good price, but it will be 2,000 or 3,000 miles away,” Rathgeber says. “Especially with produce, you have to watch, because it has the potential to get buggy. Buy locally as much as possible.”

Marshall notes that on some occasions, it’s just not possible to get some organic items at a reasonable price. Red bell peppers, a menu staple for Biga Pizza, are $100 per case in the winter if he buys organic, and $25 if he doesn’t. He goes through four cases a week. In that case, he chooses the non-organic. In early June, he wanted organic fennel but couldn’t get it through the local farmers, so he bought non-organic. As soon as he can get organic, though, he’ll switch.

Customers may like the fact that the pizza is organic, but ultimately, it just has to be good food to hook customers. Silvio’s Organic Pizza in Ann Arbor, Michigan, serves organic food whenever possible. Like others interviewed for this story, he has gone to great lengths at times to get organic ingredients. He drives to the airport to pick up organic cheese from time to time. The restaurant “is gaining popularity day by day,” says owner Silvio Medoro. “People refer their friends, and we have new customers every day. There is a share of people who like it just because it’s good pizza.” ?

Defining Organic

The Organic Trade Association provides background and information about organic food on its Web site, www.ota.com. The OTA defines organic as food that is produced in soil that is free of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. The food itself must be raised without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering, sewer sludge or irradiation. Cloning animals or using their products is not considered organic. Food must be processed minimally without artificial ingredients, preservatives or irradiation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of certifying food as organic in the U.S., according to its Web site. The U.S.D.A. allows the use of the term 100 percent organic on labels of food that is in fact 100 percent organic, excluding water and salt. Products may be labeled simply as organic if they have 95 percent organic ingredients. Processed food that is labeled as made with organic ingredients must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

Want to become a certified organic restaurant? Visit www.ams.usda.gov, which operates the U.S.D.A.’s National Organic Program.

Robyn Davis Sekula is a freelance writer living in New Albany, Indiana.