Why organic restaurant certification is important

Serving giant fried chicken sandwiches and emblazoned with the slogan “taste the revolution”, the organic shot quietly opened in Pleasanton, California last November. This is a modest fast-food establishment run by two former Costco executives, focusing on all things fried chicken (i.e. sandwiches, wraps, and bowls), but the restaurant has a larger 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 take 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 self-certified. It is a process that takes time and 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 as to the source of its ingredients seem to be on the rise), interest in certified organic restaurants is growing.

Forty years ago, organic food was the preserve of hippies and back-to-the-landers. When Nora Pouillon opened the fine dining establishment in Washington, DC Nora’s Restaurant in 1979, the term “organic” did not even appear in the popular lexicon.

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

Nora Pouillon in front of the restaurantA few decades later, “organic” was becoming more widely known, and its customers began to ask what it meant for the restaurant and how they could be sure of its claims. Most of Nora’s restaurant ingredients were certified organic at the time, and Pouillon wondered: What if she got all of restaurant certified organic so she could show her customers she was legit?

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

A handful of others have since followed in Nora’s restaurant 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, preparation, sanitation, pest control and everything else fall within the guidelines.

For some serious restorers, 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 holds its own in terms of every last ingredient. Truly committed restaurateurs welcome this, bring it, 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 that’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 first and come back when everything is settled.

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