Organic Food Cafes: Emerging or Established Trend?

| February 5, 2011 | 5 Comments
  • 5 Comments

Happy Girl Kitchen Co. cafe in October. Photo: Courtesy of Happy Girl Kitchen
The opening of the Happy Girl Kitchen Co.’s cafe in October. Photo: Courtesy of Happy Girl Kitchen

Way back in the dark ages of organic dining — about 15 or 20 years ago now — I remember the first time I saw the term “antibiotic- and hormone-free eggs” on the menu. It was at a cafe in the Mission District just at the beginning of the explosion of sustainable eats on those streets, I’m thinking Val21, if memory serves me correctly.

Such terminology was new to me then, and many others I suspect, and it struck me as kind of funny. Despite the slightly higher cost, who in their right mind, I wondered, would knowingly order the eggs with icky additives given the choice?

So I was a little surprised to see a panel on the agenda of the recent EcoFarm Conference about the emerging organic food cafe trend. Emerging seems a bit of a stretch, given the plethora of organic eateries out there that have been in business for some time, in certain cases a couple of decades.

Still, it is worthwhile to take stock of how far we’ve come in terms of knowing we have a bevy of chophouse choices on the local, natural, sustainable, free-range, hand-made, organic front.

Since serving meat and dairy from contented cows raised in bucolic settings with oceans views, along with greens lovingly grown from heirloom seeds sown tenderly by farmers who have deep, personal relationships with their animals and plants are now made fun of in the local media — Dan Hoyle’s The Real Americans and Chronicle columnist’s Jon Carroll’s recent column come to mind — it seems pretty clear that this phenomenon has well and truly hit the mainstream in the Bay Area and beyond.

Talking up this trend on the panel Saturday was Todd Champagne, one half of the team behind Happy Girl Kitchen Co., the pickling and preserving company that opened an organic cafe in October in its new food preservation center in Pacific Grove, site of a former beloved natural food grocery known as The Grannery.

I stopped by the store on my way out of town after the EcoFarm event and the place was buzzing with conference attendees picking up canning supplies and pantry items, including Happy Girl’s award-winning Apricot Chili Jam (see Bay Area Bites post on the Good Food Awards.)

Happy Girl Kitchens Jordan Champagne and her pickled products. Photo: Courtesy of Happy Girl Kitchen

Happy Girl Kitchens Jordan Champagne and her pickled products. Photo: Courtesy of Happy Girl Kitchen

I stayed for a simple yet satisfying lunch and it was immediately clear how the cafe complements the company’s business philosophy, which has always aligned itself with local, organic farmers.

Also: Super savvy marketing move. What better way to enjoy tea and toast in the morning than slathered with some Strawberry and Lavender Jam (my personal favorite) straight from the kitchen? Likewise, my cheese, pear and salad greens sandwich came with a generous serving of pickled green beans on the side. Smart.

Jordan Champagne, who was teaching a cheese-making class on site in the center’s certified kitchen, later confirmed my thinking. “Opening the cafe was such a natural fit for us,” she says. “And coming up with a menu was pretty, well, organic, and just flowed from the kinds of products we already make.”

Charlie Hong Kongs is a Santa Cruz institution. Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Hong Kong
Charlie Hong Kong’s is a Santa Cruz institution. Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Hong Kong

Earlier in the day at the panel Caroline Rudolf of Charlie Hong Kong‘s in Santa Cruz explained how she and her husband began, essentially, an affordable fast food joint that just happened to sell healthy, tasty bowls of steaming goodness reminiscent of the street food they ate and loved in their extensive travels. Charlie Hong Kong’s is a Santa Cruz institution; the pair opened another store in Marin in December.

A steaming bowl of wholesome goodness from Charlie Hong Kong. Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Hong Kong

A steaming bowl of wholesome goodness from Charlie Hong Kong. Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Hong Kong

Missing from the mix that day: Tanya Holland, the soul food chef behind Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, whose kitchen combines locally-grown, organic, and seasonal produce with menus that reflect her African American heritage and formal culinary training in France.

Each of these organic entrepreneurs do something a little different with food. What they all have in common: A proven track-record and kudos from critics and consumers alike. Oh, and they seem to be holding their own during a tough economy, in the food field no less, which is not known for its high profit margins.

Other organic cafes and restaurants are sprouting up all over. In Berkeley alone Gather, Saturn Cafe, and Zatar, which serves up hand-selected organic fruits, herbs, and vegetables, many harvested daily from the owners own impressive produce garden, come immediately to mind.

Now it’s your turn: I’m curious to hear from readers whether they choose a cafe or restaurant based on where the food comes from and how it was raised. Do you have your own local organic eatery that you frequent?

Share your picks in the comments area.

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Category: bay area, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, local food businesses, restaurants, bars, cafes, sustainability, environment, climate change

About the Author ()

Sarah Henry hails from Sydney, Australia, where she grew up eating lamingtons, Vegemite, and prawns (not shrimp) on the barbie (barbecue). Sarah has called the Bay Area home for the past two decades and remembers how delighted she was when a modest farmers' market sprouted in downtown San Francisco years ago. As a freelance writer Sarah has covered local food people, places, politics, culture, and news for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, California, San Francisco, Diablo, Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and Berkeleyside. A contributor to the national food policy site Civil Eats, her stories have also appeared in The Atlantic, AFAR, Gilt Taste, Ladies' Home Journal, Grist, Shareable, and Eating Well. An epicurean tour guide for Edible Excursions, Sarah is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale and tweets under that moniker too.
  • Wished for the truth

    Sadly, what most people don’t realize, the majority of the organic product out there is fake, not really organic. But hey, it really sells! The farmers are cheating and there is nothing anyone is doing to stop them. The restaurants turn a blind eye and everyone makes money.

  • http://happygirlkitchen.com jordan champagne

    I am not sure what the comment above is referring to, but we at happy girl know our farmers, we visit their farms, we discuss topics with them and we know that most are beyond organic and are quite sustainable. I agree in an anonymous world a lot of cheating can happen, but not when you know who grows your food. Not when you know who makes your food. The key is crossing over and making it personal!

  • marie

    If you want to make sure you buy/eat organic products, buy certified or check out the certifications in the restaurant. The certification label ensure with the respect of productions and processing regulation to get organic products.
    In USA it is still not strict enough as USA has forbidden to differentiate GMOs from non-GMOs with labelling. So you could get an organic food with GMO…
    In Europe the regulation is much stricter. If you want to eat 100% organic, turn to Swiss organic products. Their label Bio Suisse make them 100% organic in contrary to the international policy which says “at least 95% organic, when the remaining 5% is not available on the organic market”, and NO GMOs !

    The certification is, by now, the only way to make sure you eat organic

  • http://danthegardener.com/ Dan The Gardener

    I like the idea on Strawberry and Lavender Jam sound very good. I think people have to accept that if they want organic food it is going to be more expensive which is such a shame as this then puts many people off as they can not afford it.

  • Wished for the truth

    A lot of people knew Bernie Madoff very well, but that didn’t prevent them from losing their life savings; did it? Knowing your farmer is great, but you really don’t know what is going on at the farm when nobody is there. Certification does not guarantee anything either. There is no testing, no verification of what is being done. “Beyond Organic” really means, they are not certified, and are not following the rules enough to be certified. Organic is a perfect scam. The consumers want to feel good about buying it, the stores and restaurants want to charge more for it, the farms are charging more for it, so nobody wants to hear the truth. That would spoil the whole thing for everyone.

    Emerging or Established Trend? It’s a fad that is already fading in favor of local and sustainable. Organic farming has already proven to be unsustainable since less than one percent of farm production in the USA is organic, down from a few generations ago when almost everything was organically grown.

    Local and sustainable is the next scam. There are no definitions, and no rules; perfect!