How to Start an Organic Restaurant
Posted on June 2, 2014
There are boundless reasons to start an organic restaurant in these eco-friendly times. Perhaps you value the concept of naturally-grown greens and hormone-free animal products. Maybe you find importance in spreading wellness and good health. Or perhaps you’ve finally realized that people will pay through the nose for organic products and want a piece of that sweet, sweet pie. Regardless of the reason, with social and political attention tuned to organic eating, now is as good a time as any to make your dream a reality.
To keep a clear perspective before diving in, it’s important to acknowledge some hard facts. The restaurant industry is notorious for widespread failure and only about a quarter of restaurants survive their first year.
Defining “Organic” for Restaurants
The USDA and FDA make it clear that to be defined as organic and secure an organic label, food must be produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, sewage-based fertilizers, and petroleum-based fertilizers. For example, Livestock must be exposed to outdoor grazing and receive no growth hormones or antibiotics to be considered organic. [Source].
However, the industry continues to grow and shift along with changes in social demands and economical trends. Organic restaurants are gaining in importance and popularity, and many restaurants are finding success in this niche.
But before we dive in, let’s weigh the benefits and the risks of going organic.
Acknowledge the Desire for Healthy Food
Consumers are displaying a cumulative shift in awareness of their diets and health. According to a study by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), 71 percent of adults reported making more health-conscious choices in their diet in 2013 than in 2011 [Source]. The trend shows the turning tide toward the concept of organic restaurants and foods, and this alone is good for business.
Still, the reality is that some consumers’ eating habits will not change. Consider your current demographic and if there is a realistic demand for organic food. Keep in mind this might take some time – many diners alter their dining preferences at some stage in their lives, but know that not all diners will embrace your concept right away.
Avoid Being Pretentious
There are certainly niches and neighborhoods for menus with nothing but soymilk, seitan and seaweed. But food that doesn’t taste, look or sound “normal” can be the source of elitist stigmatization. When crafting your organic menu, try offering familiar menu options, like classic hamburgers (made with hormone-free beef) or homemade vegetarian chili (made with organic beans, peppers, tomatoes and onions). Put the details in the menu descriptions.
It’s important to work at making your business, your brand image, and your menu accessible to your local dining community. Market your healthy menu in a way that seems comforting to potential customers instead of intimidating.
Be Prepared for Higher Food Costs
The strict, regulated procedures involved in organic farming and production costs 10% to 30% more than non-organic competitors [Source]. On top of that, produce yields are usually slightly smaller and perhaps less predictable than produce farmed with pesticides. Certifications can add to the organic price tag, although the USDA will reimburse up to 75% of those costs [Source].
Operators should be aware of the high prices of these volatile markets. Organic foods may be more sensitive to changes in weather, pests, and market fluctuation. The extra costs often makes their way to the customer, but strive to keep prices reasonable in your restaurant so the customer isn’t afraid to choose organic options.
Find a Good Food Source
A steady food supplier is second to none when it comes to operating restaurant. Organic food suppliers may vary, but good relationships are essential and can lead to steadier pricing. Many operators choose to source food locally, from a certified-organic farm or even neighborhood gardeners, depending on the kitchen size and menu needs. One example is Bamboo Fresh, an organic restaurant in Lahaina, Hawaii, that sources their fruits, vegetables and meat from local vendorsWhile it’s valuable to keep a year-round supplier-to-operator relationship, sometimes restaurants must work with multiple suppliers and change their menus seasonally.
Restaurant Spotlight: Bamboo Fresh, Lahaina, Hawaii
Bamboo Fresh, an organic restaurant in Lahaina, Hawaii, sources all their meat, fruits and vegetables from local vendors and ranchers. This way, the food maintains its inherent nutrients, enzymes, fibers and proteins that are necessary for nutrition without depleting resources or exposing people to toxins.
“We need to wake up about our health,” says Michelle Fournier, who keeps everything organic in her café when possible.
Michelle also uses eco-friendly products like biodegradable straws, which are made from plant fiber. “They’re flimsy,” she admits, but she’d rather maintain her philosophy than use plastic, which takes years to decompose.
There’s no denying the increasing allure of organic dining to the general public. But with any new restaurant, acknowledging there will be difficulties is the first step to success. Not everyone will love your concept, and high food cost is just a part of the process. Organic restaurants are especially vulnerable to high costs, but marketing and operating your restaurant the right way will put a profit in the bank and a smile on your face.