A Fine Line: Restaurants weigh going green versus making enough green

Look carefully at the smooth ShetkaStone tables at Terrene, and you’ll see tiny bronze marks mixed in the sea of black; these are staples. From the tables, made of recycled office paper, to its maple floor taken from the former Vashon High School building in Midtown, almost everything in the Central West End restaurant is environmentally friendly, including, of course, its menu.

Some, though not all, of the food on Terrene’s menu is certified organic. In the past 10 years, organic foods have been showing up more and more in St. Louis restaurants. Sue Baird, program manager for independent certification agency One Cert Missouri, sees a bigger market for this type of food.

“I think there’s a growing knowledge from the consumers about the value of organic food,” Baird said. “The more knowledge the consumer has, the more likely they will seek out certified organic food.”

Organic foods appeal to people who want to know where their food is coming from and how it was treated, according to Baird. If consumers buy certified organic products, they can be assured the food they are purchasing contains no chemical pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified organisms or growth hormones. A product must pass stringent government standards to legally call itself “certified organic,” but it hasn’t always been that way.

When Brett Palmier, co-owner of Biver Farms in Edwardsville, opened his business in 1996, he didn’t use pesticides on his fruits and vegetables and tried to be as environmentally friendly as possible. In essence, Palmier ran an organic farm, but there was no legislation in place to define what “organic” meant.

“People could just call themselves organic,” Palmier said. “They could put the organic name on their product and then triple the price.”

In 1990, the U.S. government decided to do something about the confusion, passing the Organic Foods Production Act. It wasn’t until 12 years later, in 2002, that the law was actually implemented. Now, because of that law, farmers, grocery stores and restaurants must pass a set group of standards before they can be called certified organic.

Baird’s One Cert program helps implement these standards in Missouri. She said the process of becoming certified organic can be a long one and requires a lot of paperwork.
For example, Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co. must track every coffee bean back to its original grower, said co-owner Suzanne Langlois. This ensures that the bean is certified organic when it arrives at Kaldi’s.

To call the coffee certified organic after it’s roasted, however, the roasting company itself must be certified with the government. Every year since 2001, when Kaldi’s first became certified organic, Quality Assurance International, a certifying agent authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spends up to a week checking Kaldi’s paperwork and surveying its facilities. The process costs Kaldi’s $5,000 each year.

As the market for organic foods grows, restaurants can use the trend to their marketing advantage. This is not, however, why Langlois says Kaldi’s forks up the money each year.

“We look at it as an investment in the future of our company and industry,” Langlois said. “We want this industry to be around forever, and we want the people who do the hardest work [the coffee growers] to have the best life possible.”

Certified organic coffee growers do not come in as much contact with harmful chemicals because they do not spray pesticides on their coffee. Additionally, certified organic growers are the only coffee producers to use sustainable production methods. To Langlois, buying organic, fair-trade coffee is the “right thing to do.”

Environmental and social concerns are the driving force behind many local restaurant owners’ decisions to serve organic food. Although a lot of local restaurants serve organic foods, there isn’t a certified organic restaurant in the metro area. (But there are certified organic restaurants in the United States. The first was Washington, D.C.’s Nora, certified in 1999.)

To become certified organic, a restaurant would have to endure a lengthy certification process similar to what Kaldi’s goes through every year. Like Kaldi’s, a certified organic restaurant would not have to serve all organic foods all the time, but it would need a standard operating procedure dictating how it would separate organic and non-organic foods.

For Northwest Coffee Roasting Co., customer demand drove its recent decision to seek organic certification, said roaster Eric Schaefer. Twenty-two percent of the total roasting is organic at Northwest, which is certified by One Cert. The main mission of the certification process, he explained, is to keep organic beans from mixing with nonorganic ones.

To make sure there’s no contact, Northwest stores raw organic and nonorganic beans on opposite walls of its Central West End shop, where it does the roasting for its two other locations in Clayton. Northwest also uses color-coded scoops and buckets, among other procedures, to keep its beans apart.

Stephen Gontram, chef and owner of Harvest Seasonal Market Cuisine in Richmond Heights, said he would love for Harvest to be a certified organic restaurant, but right now, in St. Louis, it’d be difficult. Because Missouri does not have nearly as many organic farmers as states along the coasts, it can be extremely costly to serve organic foods in St. Louis. Gontram says a bag of organic onions costs three times as much as non-organic onions. When he uses a bag a day he’d have to pass along the additional costs to the customer.

“As much as I would like to serve an all-organic menu, unless the amount of product goes up, it’s very, very difficult to serve all organic,” Gontram said. “There’s not enough of it [organic foods], and it’s too difficult to work with suppliers.”
It can also be difficult to find an organic product that retains a consistent quality. Sara Hale, chief designer of Schlafly Beer, used to be in charge of quality control for the Saint Louis Brewery. There’s not a lot of demand for organic malts, so the consistency of ingredients varies.

“For us, as a bottling brewery, consistency is becoming far more important,” Hale said. “If you’re a packaging brewer, people expect to go buy the same beer every time.”

There’s not a lot of consumer demand for organic brews, either, said Stephen Hale, chief brewer at the Schlafly Tap Room. The brewery does brew a batch of Organic Pale Ale every Earth Day (a version of its regular Pale Ale that uses organic malt), but Stephen Hale said that the increased cost of organic hops doesn’t warrant brewing organic ale year-round, nor does using organic malt necessarily mean that it’s higher-quality malt. “For craft brewers like us, quality ingredients are very important,” Stephen Hale said. “We’re already using very high-quality ingredients; organic malts won’t really increase the quality.”

Because of these issues, most of what people are buying at St. Louis restaurants is not certified organic, according to Geoff Beal, regional director of the East Central area for the Missouri Organic Association, a group that supports the state’s organic and sustainable farmers.

More and more area restaurants purchase ingredients from local farmers, many of whom use sustainable and chemical-free farming practices to produce their harvest. But while those methods are in line with the philosophy of organic food, without certification, the resulting harvest may not be labeled and sold as certified organic.

Goatsbeard Farm in Harrisburg, Mo., for example, provides many local restaurants with goat cheese, but the farm is not certified organic. Jennifer Muno, co-owner of Goatsbeard, said her goats are all on open pastures and receive no hormones, but she does not use organic feed, which can be both difficult to find and expensive.

If Muno’s costs for feed rise, she will have to pass it along the consumer. For now, Muno said her customers aren’t demanding certified organic goat cheese.

“Many local growers use sustainable farming methods but choose not to be certified for many reasons,” said Tricia Wagner, local food specialist for the University of Missouri Extension. “I believe the chefs understand that and feel supporting local businesses is equally, if not more important, than buying ‘organic’ that is shipped across the country or even from other countries.”

Organic or local, Gontram said the bottom line is quality and taste: “We’re not going to serve anything that’s not good quality.”