If organic food is becoming more popular, why aren’t there more organic restaurants? Miles Clarke reports.
Organic food production may be a $300-million-a-year business, according to the Biological Farmers of Australia. It’s growing by up to 30 per cent annually but you can count on one hand the number of Australian restaurants to have embraced organic certification.
This is not to say there aren’t many restaurateurs with organic dishes on their menus. It’s rather the hassle factor of maintaining compliance that deters an embrace of the certification by one of the two industry bodies policing the integrity of Australian organic foodstuffs.
It’s not difficult to see why. Where an organic foods retailer simply receives and on-sells produce from a variety of approved suppliers in separate units, the restaurant chef may require 10-plus different organic ingredients for the recipe of a single dish—a significant challenge in a busy outlet.
In addition, the proponents of organic foodstuffs are not hesitant to admit part of the problem is Australia’s relative ‘clean and green’ image compared to other parts of the world. In Europe and the UK, the adoption of organic produce from the supermarket and in restaurants is powering ahead, fuelled by scares such as mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease and the spectre of genetically-modified crops.
Such is the mainstreaming of certified organics in the restaurant trade in Europe that last year’s Culinary Olympics in Germany was won by chefs from a certified organics-only restaurant in Sweden.
Australia has some way to go in this area. Researching this article, calls to four listed certified organic restaurants revealed that only two were still operating. However, that doesn’t mean the organic way isn’t being embraced.
It requires passion, as Jake Greenrod from GoodLife Modern Organic Pizza in Glenelg near Adelaide explains. “I believe fellow restaurateurs should only follow if they have patience and a real belief in organic principles. Getting on a trendy bandwagon will do nothing for their business long-term as organics requires a long-term strategic focus.”
Greenrod operates his restaurant with his brothers, Mike and Martin, and between them they have 30 years’ experience in the hospitality trade. Their restaurant has been operating for 18 months.
He admits that working with an organic positioning is challenging. “Suppliers are more subject to seasonal and pest variations but keeping an open mind, patience and flexible attitude helps,” he says. Positive feedback from our loyal customers also helps us stay true to our mission of producing the best food possible.”
GoodLife Pizza is certified organic by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture of Australia (NASAA) and has to be able to produce a certified audit trail from farm to table.
“We are not 100 per cent organic. We are only certified organic where stated. When not organic it is the best local produce we can source. I believe at present it would be near impossible to run a commercially profitable, completely certified organic establishment.”
Maintaining consistency of supply is one of the challenges facing this certified organic restaurant and Greenrod mitigates this to some extent by having a broad base of organic suppliers.
“We love working for GoodLife and positive customer feedback helps affirm our belief that organics tastes better, is better for you and is better for the environment.”
Perhaps the most sophisticated restaurant in Australia in this field is Mondo Organics in West End, Brisbane. They are not certified, as head chef and partner Dominique Rizzo explains, as they simply wouldn’t be viable.
“We have a commitment to organic products and use them extensively but the reality is that our customers like us for the quality of our food,” says Rizzo. “If we went down the purist organic route we couldn’t afford to be in business.”
Mondo Organics is clearly a player in the Brisbane market, with a cooking school and catering operation as well as gourmet food tours to Europe.
Peasant’s Feast in Sydney’s Newtown probably has the highest credentials when it comes to organic fare. The existing restaurant was purchased two years ago by Dr Robert Marlow, a physician and researcher with a strong interest in immunology and medical pathology.
He believes modern, processed foods are contributing to the development of a wide range of illnesses such as diabetes and allergies and he regards the restaurant as an extension of his medical practice. The restaurant has received glowing reviews from the perennially picky Sydney food media and serves a diverse menu featuring seafood, meats, poultry and desserts.
“We have 70 per cent of our dishes 100 per cent organic,” says Dr Marlow. “We went for accreditation from Biological Farmers of Australia to obtain our ACO (Australia certified organic) status to add legitimacy to our claim to provide organic fare. The business is building and we are now branching into some ‘green treat’ product lines for takeaway.”
An example from this menu is Mesculan salad with organic chicken, which has Mesculan leaves, fresh tomato, mustard, honey, red wine, vinegar, lime juice and flaxseed oil (rich in Omega-3 fatty acids).
Dr Marlow says that business is continuing to grow as his patients and the general community become aware that they can obtain healthy food eating out at a reasonable cost. All restaurant scraps are used to fertilise a local permaculture garden.
Certification from NASAA or ACO can take up to 12 months but is inexpensive, with application costing less than $500 and the annual compliance inspection between $250 and $400 a year.
Andrew Sturgar has operated the Health Emporium in Sydney’s Bondi for the past eight years. He is certified through NASAA but has limited his on-premises consumption to juices and smoothies.
“We did offer pre-made sandwiches and other light snacks but weren’t equipped to provide all the particular requests of our customers,” says Sturgar. “We now supply takeout dishes such as salads, rice balls and tofu fritters.
“There are many trends that come and go in the health food sector. We’ve built our business with the supply of wholesome, good quality food. This health food area has become increasingly competitive but we have a loyal client base.”
Dr Andy Monk, chief executive officer of Biological Farmers of Australia, anticipates that the restaurant trade will increasingly embrace organic foods as general public consumption of organic foodstuffs increases.
“The supply rate has also improved markedly in the past couple of years, giving chefs that continuity of supply they require. We have not had the situation that Europe’s experienced with repeated food scares in recent years. That has boosted public demand for organic foods significantly but we’re happy not to be promoting on the back of such a negative situation,” says Monk.
“Organic food producers also increasingly recognise their products’ need to be competitive in terms of quality and cost. We’d like to see 10 per cent of Australia’s restaurants going the organic route. There is great potential and it may well be consumer driven as organic foods become in integral part of the weekly shop.”
Marketing manager for NASAA Joanne Koehne says the certification process for restaurateurs was significantly less onerous than for producers.
“Restaurants need to maintain a clear audit trail for the products they use but, provided the products they use are certified organic, they’ll have few issues,” says Koehne. “We appreciate there is no regulation as to the use of the word ‘organic’ but having the NASAA accreditation provides a good message to the consumer.”