Organic Food Cafes: Emerging or Established Trend?

Happy Girl Kitchen Co. cafe in October. Photo: Courtesy of Happy Girl Kitchen
The opening of the Happy Girl Kitchen Co.'s cafe in October. Photo: Courtesy of Happy Girl Kitchen

Way back in the dark ages of organic dining -- about 15 or 20 years ago now -- I remember the first time I saw the term "antibiotic- and hormone-free eggs" on the menu. It was at a cafe in the Mission District just at the beginning of the explosion of sustainable eats on those streets, I'm thinking Val21, if memory serves me correctly.

Such terminology was new to me then, and many others I suspect, and it struck me as kind of funny. Despite the slightly higher cost, who in their right mind, I wondered, would knowingly order the eggs with icky additives given the choice?

So I was a little surprised to see a panel on the agenda of the recent EcoFarm Conference about the emerging organic food cafe trend. Emerging seems a bit of a stretch, given the plethora of organic eateries out there that have been in business for some time, in certain cases a couple of decades.

Still, it is worthwhile to take stock of how far we've come in terms of knowing we have a bevy of chophouse choices on the local, natural, sustainable, free-range, hand-made, organic front.

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Since serving meat and dairy from contented cows raised in bucolic settings with oceans views, along with greens lovingly grown from heirloom seeds sown tenderly by farmers who have deep, personal relationships with their animals and plants are now made fun of in the local media -- Dan Hoyle's The Real Americans and Chronicle columnist's Jon Carroll's recent column come to mind -- it seems pretty clear that this phenomenon has well and truly hit the mainstream in the Bay Area and beyond.

Talking up this trend on the panel Saturday was Todd Champagne, one half of the team behind Happy Girl Kitchen Co., the pickling and preserving company that opened an organic cafe in October in its new food preservation center in Pacific Grove, site of a former beloved natural food grocery known as The Grannery.

I stopped by the store on my way out of town after the EcoFarm event and the place was buzzing with conference attendees picking up canning supplies and pantry items, including Happy Girl's award-winning Apricot Chili Jam (see Bay Area Bites post on the Good Food Awards.)

Happy Girl Kitchens Jordan Champagne and her pickled products. Photo: Courtesy of Happy Girl Kitchen
Happy Girl Kitchens Jordan Champagne and her pickled products. Photo: Courtesy of Happy Girl Kitchen

I stayed for a simple yet satisfying lunch and it was immediately clear how the cafe complements the company's business philosophy, which has always aligned itself with local, organic farmers.

Also: Super savvy marketing move. What better way to enjoy tea and toast in the morning than slathered with some Strawberry and Lavender Jam (my personal favorite) straight from the kitchen? Likewise, my cheese, pear and salad greens sandwich came with a generous serving of pickled green beans on the side. Smart.

Jordan Champagne, who was teaching a cheese-making class on site in the center's certified kitchen, later confirmed my thinking. "Opening the cafe was such a natural fit for us," she says. "And coming up with a menu was pretty, well, organic, and just flowed from the kinds of products we already make."

Charlie Hong Kongs is a Santa Cruz institution. Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Hong Kong
Charlie Hong Kong's is a Santa Cruz institution. Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Hong Kong

Earlier in the day at the panel Caroline Rudolf of Charlie Hong Kong's in Santa Cruz explained how she and her husband began, essentially, an affordable fast food joint that just happened to sell healthy, tasty bowls of steaming goodness reminiscent of the street food they ate and loved in their extensive travels. Charlie Hong Kong's is a Santa Cruz institution; the pair opened another store in Marin in December.

A steaming bowl of wholesome goodness from Charlie Hong Kong. Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Hong Kong
A steaming bowl of wholesome goodness from Charlie Hong Kong. Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Hong Kong

Missing from the mix that day: Tanya Holland, the soul food chef behind Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, whose kitchen combines locally-grown, organic, and seasonal produce with menus that reflect her African American heritage and formal culinary training in France.

Each of these organic entrepreneurs do something a little different with food. What they all have in common: A proven track-record and kudos from critics and consumers alike. Oh, and they seem to be holding their own during a tough economy, in the food field no less, which is not known for its high profit margins.

Other organic cafes and restaurants are sprouting up all over. In Berkeley alone Gather, Saturn Cafe, and Zatar, which serves up hand-selected organic fruits, herbs, and vegetables, many harvested daily from the owners own impressive produce garden, come immediately to mind.

Now it's your turn: I'm curious to hear from readers whether they choose a cafe or restaurant based on where the food comes from and how it was raised. Do you have your own local organic eatery that you frequent?

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Share your picks in the comments area.

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