Organic Growth

As more customers seek ‘natural’ foods, one organic restaurant chain has found a niche in several non-commercial markets. Organic To-Go, the first fast-casual chain to be certified as an organic retailer, says its market of convenience and organic positions it perfected for a population that wants "real" food in a fast pace.

With the move toward more healthful and more natural foods gaining momentum, more and more foodservice directors are seeking ways to bring organic products into their operations. This push has, naturally, become an opportunity for companies who feature organic items.

One such venture, Organic To Go, has found a niche in non-commercial foodservice. The first fast-casual chain to be certified as an organic retailer, the company has opened more than 65 locations nationwide. These include college campuses such as UCLA and the University of Southern California, hospitals like Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center and University of Washington Medical Center, and Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Expedia, Jet Propulsion Labs and Starbucks.

Growth plans: The company has ambitious growth plans, thanks to equity investments totaling $23 million. Operating at the intersection of “convenient service and certified organic,” as company officials like to say, the Seattle-based concept consists of three different venues that are suitable for a variety of different types of locations: cafes, with a full array of hot and cold foods as well as seating and retail space for consumer packaged goods; branded grab-and-go kiosks, with a self-service selection of portable foods that use the same recipes as the café; and corporate catering and delivery to on-site employees, either in groups or individually.

The company became the first quick-service chain to be certified organic, in February 2006, undergoing a rigorous certification process that includes a 160-page application to prove it meets USDA standards. (Currently, there are only about a dozen certified organic restaurants in the country.)

“We want to bring quality organic food to as many people as possible,” says Greg Atkinson, the company’s executive chef and culinary director, “including college students and people in the workplace.”

Founded in 2004 by natural-foods industry pioneer Jason Brown, Organic To Go was first conceived as a fast and healthy alternative for on-the-go students and executives, with self-service kiosks in colleges, healthcare and B&I locations. The concept has been so successful in the Seattle, Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif., markets, however, that it has been expanded into streetside retail cafes with a new retail prototype and the purchase and conversion of a number of smaller independent operations throughout Washington and California. “O To Go” has also purchased a number of local organic and natural food catering companies, which have been converted into commissaries.

According to Atkinson, the initial self-service operation at Microsoft is one example of how demand grows. “We started with a simple kiosk, and then employees began asking for a hot line and in-house delivery and catering, so we added those too. At Starbucks headquarters, we have an audience of about 10,000 employees whose workplace attitudes have synergy with our concept, and that’s been a real calling card for us with potential customers.”

Desktop delivery: Approximately 60% of Organic To Go’s sales now involve catering and corporate food delivery to desktops and boardrooms, according to the company: a prime target for food that’s marketed to the time-deprived as fast, healthy and delicious. The Corporate Catering and Delivery Menu—printed on recycled paper, as are all of the company’s materials—lists literally hundreds of menu options, in both individual and bulk sizes, including sodas, bottled water and juices, specialty teas and other nutritionally oriented beverages. Even coffee and tea service features organic products, including cream and sugar.

The eight-page menu also includes information about purveyors, such as local farm cooperatives, that supply produce, milk, cheese and eggs. The company can even make service staff and rental equipment available for larger functions.

Organic To Go isn’t about vegetarian food or options for dieters, however—although those are indeed available. According to Atkinson, the menu has been successful because it features classic American favorites, using organic ingredients wherever possible, including fresh seasonal sandwiches, wraps, soups and made-to-order salads and desserts. In addition, catered hot entrée buffets provide items such as Italian pastas, Mexican specialties and Asian stir-fries.

“Demand for catering and delivery has been even greater than we anticipated,” says Atkinson. “We’ve tapped into a huge market of people who don’t have time to leave their desks for lunch.” Most of the retail and delivery menu is designed to be served cold, including the sandwiches, wraps and salads that make up the core of the working person’s lunch, packaged as “lunch bags” with natural chips, fruit, bottle water and a homemade cookie. Catered items—designed for working lunch meetings and the like—run the gamut from cold sandwich platters and salad bowls that serve up to 25, to appetizers, hot specialties like grilled wild salmon with either apricot teriyaki or lemon dill sauce and a large variety of breakfast items.

No minimum order is required for delivery, and all orders are packaged in biodegradable plastics and containers, including utensils and condiments. Organic To Go’s delivery people even drive a low-emission car.

Atkinson admits that even as recently as three years ago, organic was a harder category to master than it is now. “The business is changing very fast,” he says. “In 2004, we couldn’t purchase individually portioned organic salad dressings for our grab-and-go and delivered salads, so we had to make our own. Then we had it made to our specs in bulk and repackaged the dressing in our kitchen commissaries. Now we have many choices of organic dressing in both bulk and individually portioned formats.”

The same was true of crackers. “We had to buy in bulk, unpackage them and repackage them in individual servings. The cost and the labor made it prohibitive, not to mention the waste of packaging,” says Atkinson. “Now the rest of the market is catching up, and we’re riding on the crest of a wave. The timing is perfect, and now 90% or more of our menu is organic.” If not actually certified organic, all ingredients are natural, and free from pesticides and synthetic hormones.

Rotating menus: Organic To Go’s core menu changes three times a year. “We originally wanted a seasonal menu, but at the scale we’re doing, it turned out to be impractical,” says Atkinson. Even still, this degree of change is unheard-of in the quick-service industry, where menus change only after extensive testing, and are almost never timed with the seasons. Hot food in employee dining facilities changes even more often, since there is a new entrée every day, and having the delivery and catering menu online also allows for more creativity.

“The hot food and catering programs have evolved into spawning grounds for new regular menu items,” notes Atkinson, citing chicken pot pie and Thai vegetable stir-fry as two new core offerings that began in catering. Another popular specialty that made the cut is mango tango chicken, grilled chicken breast with fresh vegetables and signature mango chutney.

“We wanted to create a menu that is based on appealing American classics but made with organic ingredients,” says Atkinson. “We’ve also focused on a presentation style that is more lively and upscale.” Caesar salad is not particularly colorful dish, notes the chef, a veteran of both the sustainable and organic cooking movements on the West Coast—until you add rainbow-colored organic tomatoes. Pasta salads, which can be heavy and unattractive, have been upgraded with vinaigrette dressings rather than mayonnaise. And using a lot of Mediterranean and Asian ingredients is also more colorful and attractive, as well as more flavorful.

For its self-serve kiosks, the company is investing in more grab-and-go equipment such as merchandising cases and is developing more items that can be prepackaged. These include an extended line of wraps, such as the Thai chicken wrap. “This started as a vegetarian wrap and worked very well for us,” explains Atkinson. “It included shredded carrots, cabbage and other vegetables, with crushed peanuts and sweet red chile sauce in an organic wrap—lots of great textures, colors and flavors. By adding chicken, we’ve created a balanced full-meal sandwich that is very appealing and portable.”

Larger units include a made-to-order salad bar, and amenities such as a rotisserie for cooked chicken. The chickens are sold as-is to go, and are used in other items such as salads, pot pies and sandwiches. With its expansion has come an ability for Organic To Go to outsource high-volume production items, like brined organic chicken, which can be grilled in-house to produce a variety of different menu items. Breads and bakery products such as cookies, cobblers and pies are purchased from local artisan bakers who use organic flour, sugar and milk along with other organic ingredients.

“Because of our size, we can get better prices on high volumes of products and contract recipes out to spec,” says Atkinson. “Because we’ve always had ambitious growth goals, we were able to bring our purveyors on-board with a promise of larger and larger sales.”

Higher costs: Atkinson admits that organic food costs more, for both the provider and the consumer. “But increasingly, people care about the impact they’re making on the world around them and they’re willing to pay more for food that comes from sources they can feel good about. “Our menu makes peace between the desire for wholesome organic food and the realities of feeding a lot of people,” adds Atkinson. “It proves we can make food that’s appealing to a wide variety of consumers, but is healthy and softens the footprint of traditional food production.”