Dining Out, Eating Organic
Nora Pouillon considers herself a crusader for all things organic. Five years ago, the owner of Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., chose to make her two-decade-old enterprise completely organic. Then, to get her efforts officially certified, she spent months putting together the paperwork and working with a certifying agency to ensure that more than 95 percent of the ingredients for her dishes—including sugar, butter, oil, milk and more—comes from organic farmers and suppliers.
Pouillon's goal was, and is, straightforward: to shatter the stereotype of organic eateries churning out dreary plates of tofu and bean sprouts. The food at Restaurant Nora and its sister venue, Asia Nora, is as stylish and innovative as it is healthy. "I don't compromise with anything," she says. "I wanted to create a place where people can eat only the best and I wanted my customers to trust me. I thought the only way they would really trust me 100 percent is if I had third-party certification and a stamp of approval."
In fact, Restaurant Nora was a trailblazer, becoming the first certified organic restaurant according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program, which was passed by Congress in 2002. The NOP contains the guidelines of the Organic Foods Production Act, originally passed by Congress 12 years earlier, which required the USDA to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products.
"The organic industry had gotten bigger and bigger," observes Joan Shaffer, a USDA spokeswoman. "Farmers and consumers didn't know what organic meant, and some states would certify organic products and others would not. So we set out to define what organic means."
When it comes to restaurants, there's a big difference between incorporating organic items into the menu and certification. "Many people don't realize the extent of how committed you have to be to the cause," says Pouillon. "People told me that it would be impossible to create a restaurant with organic or additive-free cuisine and that people would be turned off by the term, since organic food has had such a bad rap for so long. Organic isn't necessarily vegetarian. It just means that each ingredient has the added bonus of being organic, so we're creating meals that are free of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and genetic modifications."
The second and, as of this writing, only other USDA-certified organic restaurant is the Ukiah Brewing Company & Restaurant in Ukiah, Calif. Former biologist Els Cooperrider and her husband, Allen, were determined to do what was necessary to get their brewery pub certified. The couple completed a 160-page application and worked with a certifier to make certain that everything edible in the restaurant is organic, from the spices, meats and pastas to the ingredients in the 13 beers they brew. "If you say you're organic and there's nothing to prove that you are, the consumer doesn't know if you're organic or not," says Cooperrider.
Going all organic all the time isn't easy. Prices are generally steeper, and some items aren't readily available. "I know other restaurants that offer some organic fare, but they don't want their hands tied to serving all organic foods," she says. "For example, you can't use gelatin, and you can never use anything genetically engineered or grown with sewage sludge. We serve organic food because we think it tastes better and it's healthier for our customers."
The squeeze on their profit margin wasn't a deterrent. "We're not making much money, but it's worth it for me and my family," says Cooperrider. "Being an organic restaurant is good for the farmers in the field and for the planet."