Organic Food Cafes: Emerging or Established Trend?

by Sarah Henry on February 7, 2011 · 25 comments

in bay area bites,food businesses,restaurant food

The opening of Happy Girl Kitchen Co.'s cafe in October./HGK Photos: Courtesy 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 in San Francisco 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’s 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, 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 my post on the Good Food Awards.)

Happy Girl Kitchens' Jordan Champagne and her pickled products.

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 Kong is a Santa Cruz institution. CHK Photos: Courtesy of Charlie Hong Kong

Earlier in the day at the panel Caroline Rudolf of Charlie Hong Kong 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 is a Santa Cruz institution; the pair opened another store in Marin in December.

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.

A steaming bowl of wholesome goodness from Charlie Hong Kong.

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.

[This post originally appeared on KQED's Bay Area Bites.]

You might also like:

Good Food Awards Showcases Sustainable Food Artisans
Berkeley Bites: Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster [owners of Gather restaurant]
Urban Youth on Growing and Selling Good Food [a report from the EcoFarm Conference]
Slow Food Folks Sell Fast Food with Style
Alice Waters’ 40 Year Campaign for Good Food

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi February 7, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Here in rural NZ, I just don’t have much of a choice. However, given how often we eat out, it matters little. There might be an eatery or two in a 100 mile radius that serves organic only. Maybe.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Book Review- Green Interior Design

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 11:27 am

Well, Melanie, I get the sense that you’re a great cook and you do write the Frugal Kiwi blog, so I assume that eating out is an occasional pastime for you.

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Alisa Bowman February 8, 2011 at 12:17 pm

See, here in south east PA, I don’t think we have a single one. We used to have a green/veggie restaurant, but I think it went out of business. And whenever I write about organic food and clean air around here, readers accuse me of making everyone paranoid. People in these parts really like their denial with their contaminated eggs!
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..What does economics have to do with marriage

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Keep fighting the good food fight, Alisa, sounds like it’s sorely needed in your neck of the woods.

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Roxanne February 8, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I think the “trend” label really depends on where you are. I think in my hometown it would still be emerging, but just an hour or so away in Boulder, CO, I’d guess it’s a fully established thing.

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 1:06 pm

That’s a really good point, Roxanne. Thanks for that geographic perspective.

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Sheryl February 8, 2011 at 1:00 pm

I wish we had the choice that you Californians seem to – but no, there are not too many places that offer up fresh, organic local cuisine. If there were – I’d be there. But I do seek out the healthiest places I can find.

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 1:07 pm

This is why it’s good, Sheryl, to get insight from around the country. Perhaps, as Roxanne points out, what is well and truly established in CA is indeed emerging elsewhere in the country.

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NoPotCooking February 8, 2011 at 1:10 pm

The first and only all organic restaurant I have eaten at was in Hawaii. In my area, there is only one restaurant I know of that uses organic meat and their other items are not organic. So it is quite a struggle if you do not live in a big city or trendy area.
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Chicken- Sweet Potato- Sage and Brown Butter

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Duly noted, NPC. Thanks for offering an alternative point of view.

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Melanie Haiken February 8, 2011 at 7:07 pm

I confess to sometimes chuckling when I see descriptions like that on menus, since it can seem a little precious. But at the same time I love the menus that list exactly where ingredients come from, like “Star Route Farms greens” or whatever. So in general I think it’s a good trend.

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 10:45 pm

I know what you mean, Melanie, it can be taken to extreme but in general I, too, appreciate knowing the heritage of the food I eat.

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Alexandra February 9, 2011 at 4:04 am

I have been spending the winter in Cambridge, and it seems like there’s an organic cafe on every other street corner now. This is a new development and one I applaud. However, I’m wondering what these organic merchants think about the GMO alfalfa, recently approved by the USDA, and how it will affect organic options across the country? I do not understand why more foodies are not concerned with the GMO crops that are fast being imposed on the nation. I would love it if you would ask at the various places you go, and do a summary of impressions. Perhaps Berkeley exists in its own little bubble, where non-organic seed cannot travel on the wind?
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Why Wellfleet Has Mid-Winter Blues

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Sarah Henry February 9, 2011 at 7:55 am

Timely concern, Sandy. It was a huge topic at the recent EcoFarm Conference. I’ll ask around in my travels and report back.

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Susan February 9, 2011 at 5:58 am

Here in Boston, local, seasonal food is big, and there are some organic places but it doesn’t seem to be as much of a focus. I recently tried a new vegan restaurant and was pleasantly surprised by how sophisticated the place was. Vegan sometimes feels crunchy granola-y with bean bag chairs and tie-dye (I’m vegetarian, so I’ve eaten in my share of vegan restaurants), but this one had a much more stylish atmosphere.

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Sarah Henry February 9, 2011 at 7:55 am

Vegan is groovy these days, Susan, it’s true. And not at all granola-y, at least in these parts.

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Jennifer Margulis February 9, 2011 at 11:03 am

Outside of California and other progressive places there are SO FEW cafes where you can get organic fresh food. It’s all McDonald’s all the time. I’m glad to read about these alternatives. We need more healthy organic restaurants EVERYWHERE. And they need to be affordable too!

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Sarah Henry February 9, 2011 at 11:38 am

Everywhere and affordable, two good points, Jennifer.

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Steph Auteri February 11, 2011 at 7:06 am

I wish I could find a place near me similar to the place you describe above. I live in the garden state, yet don’t know of ANYplace in the immediate vicinity similar to Happy Girl Kitchen. Perhaps the Slow Food website, or another one, has a comprehensive list?

My husband and I once went to a restaurant in upstate NY focused on the whole locavore movement. It was actually on the site of a farm. The food was DIVINE. Le sigh.
Steph Auteri´s last [type] ..Permalancing- The Good- The Bad- And The Mildly Horrific

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Sarah Henry February 11, 2011 at 9:19 am

That upstate NT eatery sounds just lovely, Steph. And, yes, I’d check in with the local chapter of Slow Food to see if you can find out about similar places — in the Garden State, no less!

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MyKidsEatSquid February 12, 2011 at 8:11 am

Cool idea. I just visited my sister in Boston and the organic baby shop near her house just closed down–not enough business. You’d think it would have done well in the area she lives, lots of interest in organic products….

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Sarah Henry February 13, 2011 at 11:31 pm

Perhaps a too narrow niche, MKES, in these economically challenging times? I took a food tour of a gentrifying area of San Francisco yesterday and was struck by the creative ways food businesses are banding together to make things work on the financial front.

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