D.C. became home to the country’s first certified organic restaurant in 1999, thanks to trailblazing Chef Nora Pouillon. Only a handful of restaurants across the country have followed suit, and only one other establishment in D.C. has earned the stamp.
But by summer’s end, Pouillon plans to retire and sell Restaurant Nora. Though the city will only have one certified organic dining spot (Fruitive) remaining, that doesn’t mean there won’t be organic food on local menus.
The world of organic certification for everything from farms to packaged goods is one of boundless complexity, with regulations, applications, inspections, and fees. For a restaurant, that complexity is amplified. “That’s a very difficult thing to do, to be certified organic,” Pouillon says. “You have to be passionate and crazy, as I am.”
The organic label is regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program. To be certified, a product must comply with a “set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Produce, for example, is grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, while livestock are raised without hormones. Certifications can be administered by a variety of accredited organizations.
When Pouillon set out to certify her restaurant, guidelines for a food service establishment didn’t exist. Oregon Tilth, a West Coast organization, agreed to work with her to develop a set of regulations that would suit the operations of a small-scale restaurant, rather than a farm or corporation. “I had to prove that 95 percent of whatever comes in the restaurant is certified organic,” Pouillon explains. Meeting this stringent standard was a simple decision for Pouillon because she had been building an organic foundation since opening.
When Pouillon first moved to the United States in the 1960s, she was appalled at the unhealthy food she found. She sought out local farmers and clean food to feed her family, and when she opened her own restaurant, she continued this practice. “I couldn’t kill my customers,” she jokes. “Food that is grown without any pesticides or synthetic fertilizer is better for you and keeps you healthier.”
In the 1980s, there were hardly any certified organic ingredients to work with, but Pouillon chipped away at her goal by convincing farmers to become certified and educating the public about the benefits of organic food. Now she works primarily with Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative (which she helped launch), Albert’s Organic, Coastal Sunbelt, and United Natural Foods.
Demand for organic products has seen double-digit growth nearly every year since the 1990s, and organic sales account for more than 4 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to the USDA. But Pouillon says she’s been unable to find a buyer who wants to keep her kitchen organic.
For starters, it’s still more expensive to buy organic products than conventional ones—about 20 percent more—according to Pouillon. Then there’s the exacting responsibility of managing an organic kitchen. Pouillon juggles numerous vendors, varying delivery schedules, and erratic product availability. Potential buyers have told her that running an organic restaurant is too costly and too complicated.
With Pouillon’s imminent plan to bow out of restaurants, will there be still be places to eat for diners who crave organic food above all else? Yes, because many D.C. chefs value organically grown products, saying they are typically higher quality. But instead of focusing on an organic label, these chefs nurture direct relationships with “handshake organic” farmers.
“I think there’s so many responsible farmers nowadays doing the right thing,” says Chef Rob Weland of Garrison. Instead of relying on an outside certification agency, he works with with farmers one-on-one. “It’s super important that chefs visit the farm and have a relationship with the farmer.”
Chef Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore and the forthcoming Adams Morgan restaurant A Rake’s Progress agrees talking to farmers directly is the best strategy. “I’m open to the conversation around why a farmer doesn’t choose to be certified organic if they are practicing or using organic practices,” he says. One farmer told Gjerde that an organic label would only be useful if he sold his products in a grocery store, rather than directly to his customers.
Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley of Smoked & Stacked also values local relationships over a label. “For me, local always takes priority over organic, and a lot of times smaller farms can’t really afford to be certified organic,” she says.
Weland, who uses ingredients from his own organic garden plots as well as local farms, is advantageously positioned to certify his restaurant as organic. He says 50 to 60 percent of his food is certified organic, while an even higher percentage is organic but not certified. But Weland isn’t considering it because of the certification fees, which vary based on a restaurant’s gross revenue.
“I think we really diligently source and have good relationships, and that’s more important to me than being certified organic,” he says. “I have the utmost respect for what Nora did; I just think it’s very, very hard to do.”
Even for a place like The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, Virginia, where organic has always been a hallmark, certification doesn’t have the allure it once did. The farm itself was the first to be certified organic in Virginia, but it has only kept that status sporadically since then. The restaurant has never been certified. “We do all the organic practices already,” says Chef Tarver King. “It’s just such a pain, and really at the end of the day … it doesn’t really pay off.”
Chef Jesse Miller of Bar Pilar does think it could pay off and has recently decided to consider certification. He says his ingredients are about 65 to 75 percent organic and local, but that’s not something he plasters on the menus. “We’ve gotten to this point in this city where it’s a faux pas to even mention that you do these kinds of things on a menu,” Miller says. “Somebody’s making fun of you … because they’re like, ‘oh they’re acting like it’s the early 2000s again and they have to list every farm that they use.’”
Consumers today are more educated and ask the right questions, but that doesn’t mean restaurants don’t bend the truth. “There’s plenty of restaurants that just say they do [buy organic] and are buying from the larger companies like US Foods and Sysco,” Weland says. “If you look at their numbers,” Miller adds, “there’s no way you could hit these numbers and buy this product. Trust me. I know.”
Sometimes restaurants that do big business are better positioned to source organically. For fast casual restaurants, the higher cost of organic can be slightly offset by scale, which Meek-Bradley takes advantage of to source greens and produce. “I work with all my purveyors to get the best price that I can, and when buying in larger quantities, it’s certainly easier to use that as a bargaining chip,” she says.
The same goes for Beefsteak from José Andrés. The chainlet’s chief of produce, Bennett Haynes, has found a way to keep costs low while sourcing from local farms through Coastal Sunbelt. About 30 percent of the vegetable-focused restaurant’s ingredients are either organic or responsibly grown. “If [organic] is cost competitive with conventional produce, then we definitely prefer it,” Bennett says.
This effect is amplified as a restaurant grows. Elevation Burger, which serves certified organic, grass-fed burgers, started as one restaurant in Falls Church, but now has 64 restaurants globally and works with more than 100 farms. “At the beginning, it was the promise of scale to the farms and then at a certain time it’s the actuality of scale,” explains Michael Berger, a founding partner and the vice president of the supply chain.
As one of the largest buyers of organic meat in the U.S. restaurant industry, Elevation Burger clearly sees the benefit of the accountability that comes from an organic certification. “We knew that as we were going to scale, we were not going to be able to inspect every animal, inspect every farm,” he says. “We do our initial legwork to vet each area that we’re purchasing animals from, but on an ongoing basis the organic certification really allows us to have the confidence that there is a competent body with enforcement authority overseeing the operations.”
Come fall, Pouillon won’t be running her eponymous restaurant anymore. Instead, she plans to serve as an organic consultant for businesses and restaurants and focus on her sustainable seafood business, Blue Circle Foods. She will be awarded the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in May, and she hopes that her accomplishments will inspire more chefs to become champions for organic food.
It’s a big chef’s coat to fill, but King hopes to cary the torch at Patowmack Farm. “We hope to try and become that beacon, that voice for speaking about organic cooking,” he says.
Even without Pouillon in the kitchen, those in the industry don’t see an immediate threat to the momentum that has been building over the past several decades. “The food movement is led by these individuals and by these kind of localized efforts,” Gjerde says. “There’s not a major structure to get co-opted or subverted by corporate interests.”
It’s also fairly self-sufficient. The National Organic Program’s budget is less than $10 million a year. “Other than that, the organic farmers don’t rely on the government for a terribly large amount of stuff,” Berger says.
“I don’t think chefs’ demand for quality will ever end,” Weland says. “I think people are going to hold it upon themselves to do the right thing.”
This story has been updated to include Fruitive as a certified organic restaurant in D.C. It was initially omitted because the certifying bodies did not include Fruitive, nor was there any sort of certification or mention of a certifying body on Fruitive’s website.