Buying organic & sustainable

Source it clean and green.

Ask a dozen industry folks to define sustainable food and chances are you’ll get a dozen different answers. While the USDA has established identity standards for organic labeling, there are no clear guidelines for sustainable products. To complicate things, different food producers have developed different definitions; fisheries use one set of criteria while poultry farmers, fruit growers and cattle ranchers have others.

In an effort to get everyone on the same page, the nonprofit Food Alliance certifies farmers, ranchers and food handlers (packers, processors and distributors) for sustainable agricultural and business practices. Its certification guidelines include providing safe and fair working conditions; ensuring the humane treatment of animals; banning hormones, genetic modification and non-therapeutic antibiotics; and prohibition of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, among others.

“Sustainability is a huge buzzword that is becoming muddled as everyone gloms onto it,” claims Karen Karp, a consultant for the Sustainable Food Laboratory, a coalition of food companies, distributors and organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance and World Wildlife Fund. The lab recently published “The Changing Vocabulary of Food Purchasing: A Guide for Foodservice Professionals,” in which sustainability terms like fair trade, food miles and ethical sourcing are clarified. Karp’s advice for restaurant operators is to consider sustainability a journey—not a destination. “Start the process and set benchmarks to monitor your progress. It’s about constantly adding more and continually improving.”

Bringing sustainability to the table

Here’s how four concepts are making sustainable sourcing a priority.

Big Bowl

At this Pan-Asian fast-casual chain, five words guide purchasing decisions: Local, natural, self-sustaining, eco-friendly and organic, says president Dan McGowan. “Everything we buy—from chicken to salmon and napkins—fits under one or more of these headings.”

When parent company Lettuce Entertain You purchased Big Bowl back from Brinker three years ago, they looked at it as a great opportunity to refocus the concept in a sustainable direction. That goal is easier to fulfill in some categories than others, McGowan admits. “Often, it’s simple to find a product but hard to find a distributor. We worked on getting all-natural, humanely raised beef for over a year.”

He’s now partnering with Sysco for heirloom pork, Freebird brand chicken and local produce; the largely pasture-raised beef comes from small farms in the Midwest. “Sysco Minnesota does an excellent job working with local farmers to procure seasonal produce,” McGowan adds. “They send out an alert on what’s being harvested by local farmers and we can plan specials and desserts based on that.” In addition, Lettuce’s purchasing director Mark Dorian and the company’s Green Committee have coordinated with farms in the Chicago area to supply produce; store managers often pick up the products themselves to save transportation costs. In the winter, when they’re “handcuffed” by the weather, smaller suppliers and Sysco deliver fruits and vegetables from further afield.

Escalating food prices have impacted Big Bowl’s bottom line. “All-natural beef is $1.50 more per pound and we’re spending $200,000 more a year on chicken,” McGowan reports. “We can raise menu prices a little, but mostly we’ve had to absorb the increases. But we feel a responsibility to bring in sustainable products.”

Organic to Go
Seattle, Washington

Jason Brown opened the first O to Go in 2005 with the idea that “clean food should be convenient.” There are now 33 cafés and an expanding catering division with locations in California, Washington, D.C. and Seattle.

“We firmed up our supply chain early on, establishing a status quo with a number of vendors. As organic has grown more mainstream, it’s become easier to source ingredients,” says Brown, adding that the menu is 75 percent organic—a number they are constantly working to surpass. (The remaining 25 percent is all-natural.) Suppliers include United Natural—the country’s largest organic distributor—as well as Sysco and specialty purveyors like Organic Valley for dairy foods.

Organic to Go gets the goods to its locations through a hub and spoke model. “Deliveries come to central commissaries and we transport both ready-made food and raw ingredients to the stores,” Brown explains. Culinary director Greg Atkinson has developed signature items for the breakfast and lunch-oriented concept, such as the popular chicken chili, but custom wraps, salads (from the 16-foot bar) and sandwiches are made to order on site. “We offer a very normal cuisine,” Brown notes.

Even though food costs are rising overall, Brown has noticed a significant drop in the price of organics—especially in foodservice—since he got into the business.  

Sellers Markets
San Francisco

To co-founder Deb Sellers, sustainable means leaving no carbon footprint. “We purchase from local purveyors, make everything in-house (from chicken broth to barbecue sauce), compost 75,000 pounds per year and use tables made from reclaimed wood,” she says. Sellers Markets’ three locations are all in the Bay Area, so there’s an abundance of sustainable suppliers like Petaluma Poultry, Earthbound Farm, San Francisco Specialties, Artisan Bakers and Equator Estates fair-trade coffee and tea right in their backyard. Taking a cue from fine dining, the fast-casual Sellers Markets prints producers’ names on the menu and offers handouts and stickers to promote their vendors’ commitment.

The first order of business when they opened was to find these and other key local purveyors, secure the relationships and then figure out the distribution logistics. Taste—not organics—was top of mind in lining up sustainable products. “We had to really work the system,” Sellers claims. “Sysco is Petaluma’s distributor, so they took us on and helped us secure contracts with other local purveyors. We wanted partners who could grow with us.”

Securing local vendor partnerships has also helped hold down prices. Although the average check has gone up slightly to accommodate the cost of raw materials (it’s now $8 to $10), fuel surcharges aren’t as much a factor. And when Niman Ranch raised its pork prices 40 percent, Sellers was able to find two smaller pork producers nearby to meet her needs and budget. 

Las Vegas

WELL is the acronym for Wolfgang’s Eating Loving and Living—the initiative that has been guiding purchasing for the 14 fine dining restaurants, 80 cafés and 43 catering venues in the Wolfgang Puck Companies. “Our guests are interested in the same issues that have long concerned us—sustainable farming and fishing, humane treatment of animals and reducing the hormones, antibiotics, preservatives and pesticides in the food we eat,” declared Puck when he announced WELL.

At the upscale Spago in Las Vegas, executive chef Eric Klein finds it easier than he expected to follow the directive. “We have always procured ingredients from farms and small producers. I have a truck that goes twice a week to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market in California,” he says. “Now we’re working with more local growers, too.”

The WELL focus has also influenced Klein’s menu. “I let the ingredients be the stars and tend to use less embellishment,” he explains. This is evident in simple preps like Melon Salad drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and First of the Season Farmers’ Market White Corn Agnolotti. Spago’s broadliner, U.S. Foodservice, has helped by bringing in more products from suppliers that conform to WELL. 

Supplier Q&A

Three purveyors discuss what sustainability means in their categories.

Michael Cigliano, executive VP and co-owner, Santa Monica Seafood, Rancho Dominguez, California Patrick Gabrish, director of foodservice sales, Pacific Natural Foods, Portland, Oregon Bill Taylor, venison farmer, Lora Valley Farm, New Zealand

How do you define sustainability?
MC: Sustainability is evaluated in terms of the FAO’s [Food & Agriculture Organization of the U.N.] code ofconduct for responsible fisheries. For wild species, it means management of habitats and total catch; for aquaculture, it relates to use of chemicals, impact on native stocks and other factors.

PG: Meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations. Organic and natural have become the proxy for pure; interest is growing in these labels because of the recent ingredient crisis in China.

BT: Managing stock and pasture in a manner that minimizes the environmental impact of long-term profitable farming activity. Deer on our farm are rotationally grazed and humanely raised under the New Zealand Code of Welfare for Deer Farming.

What challenges do restaurants face in sourcing sustainable products?
PG: It’s a challenge to get operators on board with sustainable products that aren’t fresh. Pacific Natural’s shelf-stable, aseptic packaging leaves a small carbon footprint. Plus, the products are more energy efficient to transport because they need no refrigeration and are lighter in weight than canned.

MC: The biggest challenge is to partner with vendors that have the same commitment and can offer affordable, sustainable seafood. Choices are available across all price points—from pollack to Chinook salmon; from fillets frozen at sea to value-added farmed products.  

What criteria should guide restaurants in purchasing sustainably?
BT: Careful nutrient monitoring, high standards for air, land and water quality and a stress-free environment are the sustainability guidelines that result in consistently flavorful, tender venison.

MC: While there are certification programs for sustainability, they tend to be too broad in their exclusion approach. The two we feel best about are the Marine Stewardship Council and the Aquaculture Certification Council. Most important is to work with a supplier you trust; seafood species, country of origin and fisheries substitutions are all areas of concern.

Describe the safety standards along your supply chain.
PG: “Certified to the source” is our motto. Vendors who sell us raw materials answer a 15-page questionnaire so we can track from field to package. Each ingredient is tagged with a lot number so it can be traced through the system and pulled if there’s a problem. Products are then held for seven days while a final analysis is done.

BT: Independent meat inspectors, audited by government veterinarians, check the deer throughout processing. Rigorous monitoring of microbiological and chemical residues is conducted by the New Zealand government and approved by the USDA and EU, resulting in an extremely clean product.

MC: Traceability systems are critical. Once seafood arrives at our plant, a biologist administers a comprehensive HACCP plan to assure that foodborne toxins, pathogens and allergens are avoided. If needed, we send samples to outside labs to analyze PCBs, E-coli, methyl mercury and histamines.

Sustainability lingo

Carbon footprint: Measure of total environmental impact, calculated in units of carbon dioxide emitted by energy consumption, transportation, production, distribution, etc.

Ethical sourcing: Taking responsibility for social, environmental and labor practices.

Fair trade: Equitable trade and fair partnerships between producers and buyers; the goal is to reduce the vulnerability of small farms and improve producers’ quality of life.

Food miles: The distance food travels from farm to consumer.Humanely raised: Animals that receive diets free of antibiotics and hormones and are raised with shelter and sufficient space to engage in natural animal behaviors.

Natural: The USDA describes natural meat and poultry as minimally processed with no artificial or synthetic colors, flavors, preservatives or ingredients; no official definition exists for “natural” in any other food category.

Organic: USDA certified organic food must be grown without most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, genetically modified seeds or irradiation; animals must be fed organically grown feed, have access to the outdoors and not be treated with hormones and antibiotics.Adapted from The Changing Vocabulary of Food Purchasing: A Guide for Foodservice Professionals, published by the Sustainable Food Laboratory

Market talk

Consumers and operators agree: sustainability is a trend that’s here to stay.

In “What’s Hot & What’s Not,” a chefs’ survey released by the National Restaurant Association in October, 2007, sustainability emerged as a top food trend. Of 194 items mentioned, locally grown produce and organic produce ranked second and third respectively, and sustainable seafood and grass-fed items came in seventh and eighth.

United Natural Foods, a leading distributor of organic and natural foods, reported net sales of $887 million for its third quarter of fiscal 2008, an increase of 21 percent over net sales in Q3 of 2007.

Organic sales have grown between 17 and 21 percent annually since 1997, finds the Organic Trade Association. But according to “The Many Faces of Organic 2008,” a report by The Hartman Group, “…there’s increasing cultural focus on formerly fringe food categories, notably local and artisan products, as well as categories that may link by dotted lines to organic but can also stand on their own, including fair trade, humane, cage free or free range.”

Local currently has the edge over organic. More than half of consumers (57 percent) report that they always or sometimes order locally sourced foods when they’re offered on a menu, while 43 percent report the same about organic foods, according to data published in the August 2008 American Express Market Brief produced by Technomic.

Menu items featuring all-natural, organic or locally sourced foods command strong premiums, reports Datassential’s MenuTrends DIRECT. In their survey of 2,500 customers, nearly half were willing to pay more for dishes with these ingredients.

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