Bob Marshall's best un-kept secret is his use of organic ingredients at Biga Pizza in Missoula, Mont. He wishes he could proclaim Biga as all organic, all the time, but doing so is cost prohibitive.
Like the food at a small but growing number of restaurants, the ingredients used at Biga are a blend of organic, natural (see definitions below) and shelf-bought products. The mix varies by season.
"To source out organic products, even in Montana, is easy in the summer because we have a lot of local farmers growing organic," said Marshall. "But when the growing season's over, if I want organic, I'd have to get them from Spokane. That's expensive."
Outrageously expensive. Locally sourced organic red bell peppers that cost him $37 a case in the summer cost $100 out of season. Organic fresh basil he buys at $4.50 per pound in the summer ... don't even think about it when winter sets in.
Knowfat! Lifestyle Grille markets its menu as all-natural, but it doesn't market its food as organic. According to its research-and-development chef, Efrem Cutler, "it's too expensive." Organic zucchini costs twice as much as non-organic, he said. But cost isn't always the issue for customers who want organic food.
"Eating organics is a lifestyle choice for people who want to feed their body with better fuel," he said.
Regardless of the challenges to use organic
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Organic and natural foods are, slowly but surely, making their way into pizza kitchens.
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A growing number of customers want them, and many pizza makers want to serve them for health, social and environmental reasons.
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Currently, however, they are costly, and operators in colder climates cannot source organic foods affordably year round.
foods, the potential benefit to restaurant operators exists. According to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), U.S. retail sales of natural and organic foods and drinks reached $18.4 billion in 2004, a 13-percent increase from the year prior. Forty-five percent of those organic buyers were Baby Boomers, the FMI report said.
But will the growth rate continue?
"Organic food is not the Atkins Diet. It's not just another fly-by-night trend," said Kyle Shadix, managing partner for Culinary Nutrition Consultants. "There is a huge difference in flavor. People in middle America know the difference, and they will continue buying organic foods."
What is organic?
According to the USDA, organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled organic, a government-approved certifier inspects the farm to ensure it's up to USDA standards. Distribution or manufacturing companies that process organic food before it gets to the supermarket or restaurant also must be certified.
For a restaurant to become certified organic, 95 percent of the items must be organic. Those foods also can't come in contact with prohibited substances like synthetic pesticides or prohibited cleaning supplies. (The USDA maintains a list of substances allowed on organics.)
Additionally, the food cannot be mixed with non-organic items, and the restaurateur must maintain certification and inventory records of all organic goods for three years — a tedious task for busy operators.
To date, the USDA hasn't issued a penalty to a restaurant for claiming to sell organic foods, most likely because it has no staff policing such claims.
"Natural" is another term used to appeal to health-minded customers. According to the USDA, a product may be labeled "natural" if it contains no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product). The label must explain the use of the term natural, i.e. no added coloring or artificial ingredients.
Natural is not only somewhat vague, unlike organic, it is not regulated.
Another reason people eat organic foods is to support local farmers. According to the Organic Consumers Association, 70 percent of organic farmers sell to local retail vendors and restaurants. OCA spokesperson Bob Scowcroft said the "local" trend began with the farmer's markets. Before organics were sold through grocery store chains, chefs visited farmer's markets to purchase the freshest ingredients.
"For the fresh-produce growers, restaurants have been an excellent source of income," Scowcroft said.
At the direction of co-owner David Yudkin, four-unit Hot Lips Pizza in Portland, Ore., has supported local farmers for years. Over the past decade, Yudkin has become an expert on fostering sustainable agricultural methods from the restaurant end, and his customers have responded by supporting Hot Lips.
"We've found that the concern among our customers is how fresh it can be, how unadulterated it is, how close to the source do we get our food," said Yudkin.
Yudkin said he used to push the message that his food was organic or natural, but he said that didn't resonate with customers like he thought it would. He learned to change his strategy.
"Rather than say it's a natural product, we try
Organic food is not the Atkins Diet. It's not just another fly-by-night trend.
— Kyle Shadix managing partner, Culinary Nutrition Consultants
to identify where it came from," he said. "People are looking for a way to trust our product, and knowing that it comes from local farms builds that trust."
Marshall also chooses to use organic and natural ingredients for the environment's sake. Hauling organic ingredients from far-flung destinations to his doors out of season pollutes the air, he said, so he doesn't buy them out of season.
An additional problem, he added, is when chefs build their menus to depend on ingredients that must travel long distances out of season. To offset that need, he adapts his menu year round.
"We just roll with the seasons," he said. "I can't use a spring vegetable mix in the winter in Montana, so I have to change that part of the menu. You should try to tailor your menu to what is seasonally reasonable and congruent."
Companies like par-baked crust manufacturer Tomanetti's, is helping the organic user by providing 100-percent organic products, and pizza sauce manufacturer Escalon has an organic line.
The 54-unit fast-casual zpizza chain uses organic pizza sauce, and it will soon use an organic pesto. President Chris Bright termed the company's pepperoni, meatballs and sausage "natural because they are substantially additive-free." zpizza, he added, works to find vendors that produce healthful products. "We always want to ensure they're as natural as possible."
Ironically, the 20-year-old company didn't share those facts until a few years ago. Bright said zpizza worried that if it touted the healthful qualities of its pizzas, customers might anticipate a less flavorful experience. But now that it's hip to be healthful, the company is out loud and proud of its fit profile.
"I think our customers are here to have good pizza, but (healthfulness) is a supporting message that resonates with them," he said.
Fred Minnick also contributed to this article.