Organic pizzeria a labor of love, integrity

April 24, 2012 | by Alicia Kelso

Jason Chang is going to spend a bit more for his supplies to run his new business – Truly Organic Pizza, in Naples, Fla. It's all part of what differentiates his restaurant from other pizza shops.

The USDA-certified organic pizzeria features 12 signature pies made fully from organic ingredients – from the crust to the cheese and all the toppings. Acquiring such certification is no easy process, but Chang is more than willing to put in the time and money to maintain that organic status.

"I think there is a strong correlation between what people are eating and their health and when we look at obesity rates – especially with our children – I wanted to come up with something that can be good for kids that they're willing to eat. Pizza is the most eaten food in America and so it made sense," he said.

When Chang moved to Florida and conceptualized his pizzeria, he didn't just want to be known as "organic," however. The Brooklyn-raised, former Wall Street trader was raised on New York-style pizza.

"I'd rather this be known as having a good all-organic pizza than just an organic pizza that tastes OK. Being a Brooklyn boy means the food has to be good," he said.

The menu

Chang stuck to a simple menu – 11 signature pizzas and one seasonal special. Six are tomato sauce-based and the others feature special homemade sauces created by Chang.

The most expensive pizza on the menu is the Carnivore, listed at $26.95. The classic pizza features pepperoni, Jason's meatballs and homemade sausage – all organic.

Another guest favorite is the Tree Hugger, which includes roasted bell peppers, wild mushrooms, garlic slices, red onions, peas, rosemary potatoes sliced by hand, bruschetta and scallions. It sells for $19.95.

And, according to Chang, the standard cheese pizza is a top seller, which "is good because in order for everything else to be good on the menu, you have to have a solid cheese pizza in place."

Procuring ingredients is no easy task when operating an organic restaurant. Truly Organic Pizza's pepperoni comes from Organic Valley, in La Farge, Wisc., and is custom-made for Chang's business. He orders 1,000 pounds at a time to try and offset some of the cost, as it runs about $8 a pound.

The same company produces the restaurant's beef and pork, which is grinded by hand in-store to create meatballs and sausage toppings. Paying more for these proteins is well worth the cost, according to Chang.

Vegetables aren't much cheaper. Chang said red peppers cost about $32 a box to $55 for a case, which yields 5.5 pounds of toppings after they're roasted and cut in-store.

Seasonal pizzas can include anything from zucchini blossoms to broccoli, depending on what's growing in Florida.

"There is a lot of labor that goes into these toppings and for good reason, I think. There are no nitrates or preservatives. The flavor is better and there is less chance of contamination this way," he said.

The menu boasts just pizza – no by-the-slice offerings, drinks or sides. Chang intends to keep it that way for now, or at least until he "perfects the pizzas."

Truly Organic Pizza offers these pizzas to go and for delivery within a 5-mile radius, without extra delivery charges. The business has some outdoor tables, but does not include table service.

Additional protocol for certification

Having 100 percent organic ingredients – grown and raised on 100 percent organic farms – is only part of the effort that goes into running Chang's certified business. He said he spent "thousands and thousands of dollars" throughout the certification process for mandates, inspectors, etc., in addition to the ongoing fee required once a year. The process took three to four months, while the initial application was "a couple hundred pages."

Additionally, the business requires organic "non-food stuff," such as cleaning products, pest control, etc.

"I believe if I didn't do this all the way, 100 percent, people would question the authenticity. This is all done to keep the integrity of an organic environment. But I really think the reason others haven't gone 100 percent organic is because the process is so daunting and expensive," Chang said.

Still, he plans on opening more of these units because he believes the demand is there. Some experts agree, including Darryl Suderman, Ph.D., president of Food Technical Consulting and founder of the Food Innovation Institute, who predicts 2012 to be a "banner year" for the organic category.

"The recession has not slowed the sales growth of Whole Foods and Wild Oats, as well as smaller organic foods markets. Topline sales have continued to grow despite increased commodity prices for meat, dairy, cheese and produce. This also implies that bottom-line margins will continue to be squeezed in 2012. Those with free discretionary spending will continue to spend money on products that can both improve their daily health and extend their activity-filled lives," Suderman wrote.

Chang said his business has doubled since it opened last month, and he has a constant stream of new customers. If he does expand the concept, which he plans on doing eventually, he'll stick to markets similar to Naples, where the demographic is relatively affluent (since organic is more expensive) and active. Chang also expects more 100 percent organic concepts to spring up in the next couple of years.

"I know there is a macrotrend for organic and I hope others copy or follow because the more of us around, the better. This is more about what tastes better and what is better for people," Chang said. "This is about having integrity in your food. The better you eat, the better you'll feel."

Check out Truly Organic Pizza's menu here.

Read more about operations management

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Cheese , Dough , Equipment & Supplies , Food & Beverage , Health & Nutrition , Operations Management , Pizza Sauce , Pizza Toppings , Sustainability , Trends / Statistics

Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine.
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