By Juliana Barbassa
UKIAH, Calif. – Everything served at the Ukiah Brewing Co. – everything – is organic. From the burgers and beer right down to the salt and pepper.
Ukiah Brewing is the first restaurant in California to be certified as organic, a designation that isn’t easy to come by.
Its owner, Els Cooperrider, pays a price in both time and money to lay claim to being one of only two organically certified restaurants in the nation.
The other is across the country, Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C.
Cooperrider, a former biologist, received the certification four years ago after she filled out a 160-page application guaranteeing that every ingredient going into the brewery’s dishes comes from a federally certified organic provider.
Now, it takes her and her son a week of work to renew it. And the cost is up to $1,600 a year.
Still, Cooperrider believes her restaurant is helping take the lead in satisfying consumers’ growing interest in knowing exactly what goes into their food.
“How else would my customers know that things are really organic?” she asks.
Statistics show Cooperrider is right that Americans care more about what they’re eating.
Sales of organic produce more than doubled between 2000 and 2004 to $12.7 billion a year, and are expected to double again by 2008.
Food service represents only 2 percent of organic produce sold.
But Holly Givens, spokeswoman with the Organic Trade Association, expects the market to grow as diners who already use organic foods at home start expecting their favorite restaurants to follow the same standards.
The Agriculture Department doesn’t require establishments that tout their food as organic to seek certification.
Restaurants taking the extra step see it as a way to show their customers that organic standards, verified by a third party, were respected at every step between the farm and the dinner plate, Givens said.
Adam Gaska and other local farmers work with Tom Altreuter, Ukiah Brewing’s chef, looking over the list of what the restaurant needs, when it needs it and how much it can pay.
Prices might not be as good as in retail, Gaska says, but the farmer knows he’ll make the sale – and receive publicity because the restaurant often tells customers where it got the food.
For Altreuter, whose job is to keep customers satisfied with hearty pub fare while keeping prices reasonable, buying only organic makes running the kitchen a balancing act.
When bell peppers are available for a good price in the summer, he buys enough for the year, roasting and freezing them.
He cans apricots and puts the preserves away for the winter.
Altreuter’s menu is eclectic, and some of his biggest challenges are finding organic ethnic ingredients such as spicy hoy sin sauce, rice noodles or dried chilies.
Exhaustive searches often end in Altreuter just making his own condiments – or tossing the entree idea and starting over.
Even common ingredients can give the chef trouble. The restaurant tries to rely on small producers in Mendocino County.
But sometimes small farmers can’t come up with 50 pounds of tomatoes on demand.
The menu warns, “items are subject to availability of organic ingredients.”
All this makes running the restaurant more expensive.
Organic produce generally costs twice as much as non-organic, and Altreuter says he has four more people in the kitchen just to keep up with the extra work.
“This is the hardest kitchen I’ve ever run,” he said, thinking back over his 20 years of experience. But being all organic also makes work more interesting, and more rewarding, he says.
“I generally know the pedigree of everything I have in here.”
Ukiah Brewing hasn’t turned a profit in its 4 1/2 years, but Cooperrider isn’t worried – it typically takes restaurants five years to be profitable.
Music teacher Jason Argos said he first wandered in the door at the Ukiah Brewing after he saw the place offered organic fare.
“I saw that it was organic, and I liked that, but I also like real beer, and it’s a good place to grab a beer,” Argos said.