So you want to open an organic restaurant.
With organics becoming more and more popular, you probably envision crowds of environmentally aware, health-conscious diners clamouring for tables. But you should also be prepared for a daunting challenge: a constant search for organic ingredients that won't demolish your budget, mountains of paperwork and a certification process that can take years.
When federal rules defining how foods — and restaurants — could be certified as organic were adopted in October, only two restaurants met the stiff criteria: N.O.R.A.'s, in Washington, and the Ukiah Brewing Company, in Ukiah, Calif. They had already been certified as organic by one of the independent local agencies that are now authorized to grant federal certification. These agencies report increased inquiries from restaurants.
Among the restaurants that have started down the path to certification is Le Pain Quotidien, a chain of 10 bakery-cafes in New York and Los Angeles. For Alain Coumont, the company's founder, the reasons are personal.
"This is not a gimmick, some marketing ploy; it's something I believe in," said Mr. Coumont, who started the chain in Belgium in 1990 and who opened his first store in the United States on Madison Avenue in 1997. "I eat organic as much as possible, so why not serve the same things to our customers?"
He said that about 70 percent of the food he sells is organic. His goal is first to have his bread certified. He will consolidate the baking, which is now done in his stores, in a new plant being built in Queens. And the bakery might be the easy part, because bread-making requires relatively few, easily available ingredients, and the company already uses organic stone-ground flour.
Before the cafes can be certified, Mr. Coumont will have to prove that every ingredient has come from an organic farm or supplier (certified, of course), and have the paperwork at hand.
If a restaurant is moving from using conventional suppliers to organic, the nonorganic ingredients must be kept separate from the organic ones at all times. And then there is the cost: many organic foods are twice as expensive as conventional items. The certification process costs about $3,000, and there are annual fees.
The owner of a would-be organic restaurant has to be persistent, and committed to the cause. Allen Cooperrider, an owner of Ukiah Brewing, which has been completely organic for nearly two years and was certified by California Certified Organic Farmers, said: "It takes hundreds of pages of paperwork. We use 35 purveyors instead of just two or three like conventional restaurants."
Buying meat, Mr. Cooperrider said, is the biggest hurdle. "Though we can get chicken, beef is very difficult and very costly, and we're competing with restaurants that pay two-thirds less," he said, adding that there is very little organic lamb, and what exists is expensive.
At Le Pain Quotidien, vegetables, lettuce and many of the condiments that go into the soups, salads and sandwiches are organic. So are the teas, juices, eggs, nuts, raisins, sugar and milk. The decision to use organic milk, Mr. Coumont said, was a big one because it is twice as expensive as regular milk; he had to raise his price for a cappuccino or latte by 10 cents. The price of some breads has increased slightly.
"There are certain products, like preserves and olive oil, that Alain has spent a lot of time finding," said Laurent Halasz, the president of the company's American division. "We won't compromise on quality. And even though we know the fruits and the olives are grown organically, the farms are not certified, so we are helping them get the label."
Mr. Coumont said: "This is a big decision, and now that I've made it I do not want to compromise. I'm making a political and social statement because I see farms going out of business and water you can't drink because it's polluted from farms that use too much pesticides." He estimates that it will take at least two years for the company to be 95 percent organic, the acceptable federal threshold.
Others familiar with organics, like Gary Hirshberg, the president of Stonyfield Farms Yogurt, which has opened three fast-food cafes called O'Naturals in Maine and New Hampshire in the past two years, said that two years is an optimistic estimate. Though he expects that all of his yogurts will be 100 percent organic in another year and a half, his estimate for the cafes, which serve salads, sandwiches and the like, is closer to four years.
"N.O.R.A. can pull it off more easily because she's doing it on a microscopic scale at a high premium," he said, referring to N.O.R.A. Pouillon, whose restaurant N.O.R.A.'s became completely organic in 1999 and was certified by Oregon Tilth, a large certifying agency, last year. "What we're doing is more price-sensitive. Our average check is $7."
Ms. Pouillon said: "When I first opened, the hardest part was finding the products. I was limited to local growers and the seasons. It has got easier every year." She keeps records on every ingredient she uses and must file changes to her frequently revised menu with the certifying agency.
Her second restaurant, Asia N.O.R.A., is not certified, nor is it likely to be, she said, because many of the ingredients in the cuisine are not yet organic.
Some of Ms. Pouillon's cooks who have moved on to other restaurants have not kept the organic faith, she said. "They say it's too expensive and takes too much time, and I find that attitude depressing."
Some owners of organic restaurants will not even try to obtain certification. "I've been nearly 100 percent organic for 27 years," said Jesse Cool, who owns Flea Street Cafe and JZ Cool Eatery in Menlo Park, Calif. "But right now, certification is not what I'm after. I want to support local farms and have a place where the clientele trusts my food and knows what I'm doing. And if you're not a high-end restaurant, price becomes too much of an issue with certain products."
Juliano's Raw in Santa Monica, Calif., which is owned by Juliano Brotman, a proponent of raw food, was just certified. It was a relatively painless two-month process because the restaurant is vegan, using no meats or dairy products. "But we've had trouble finding organic truffle oil and coconut," said Rod Rotondi, the manager.
Mr. Coumont, whose Pain Quotidien restaurants are more mainstream, has other compromises to consider. "If my customers want Coca-Cola, that will never be organic," he said. "Before long I'll have to make a decision about that, too."