On April 27, Chipotle Mexican Grill became the first national restaurant chain to ban genetically modified ingredients from its menu. But while the company has made headlines across the U.S. for its bold stance against the industry’s claim that all food is created equal, many Asheville restaurants have been waging a much quieter war of their own for years.
Mamacita’s owner John Atwater, for example, says he tries to use his restaurant’s purchasing power to send a message.
“The more interest we place on holding products up to a higher standard, I think that educates everyone, from the employees that work with us to the vendors that sell the products,” says Atwater. “It lets the food brokers that represent large companies know that some of their products aren’t going to be well-received in Asheville. I know I’m losing out on profit dollars, but it’s like I’m voting with every purchase.”
Mamacita’s offers customers such GMO-free or organic foods as chips, tortillas, black beans, rice, kale, sweet potatoes, spinach, bell peppers and quinoa.
Atwater aims for “transparency — where we’re sourcing our food from and wanting to know as much about the ingredients we’re using as possible,” he explains. “It’s a slow process, but every time I open a box and see organic or non-GMO on the side, I smile.”
Atwater hopes to eventually make 75 percent of the food he serves either non-GMO or organic.
Truth in advertising
According to the U.S. Healthful Food Council, the average American adult buys a meal or snack from a restaurant roughly six times a week, says Dr. Angela Hind, an Asheville physician and pure food consultant who founded You, M.D.
“When you are served a beautiful meal in a restaurant, you don’t know what’s in it, and it’s very easy just to ignore that,” she points out. “That transparency is just not there like it is when you visit the grocery or when you’re at home cooking for yourself and know what you’re putting in the pan.”
Randy Talley, president and co-owner of the Green Sage Café, aims to change that. “Restaurants,” he notes, “create a seamless experience for diners. You come in and we feed you like mom, and the perception is everything is nourishing like mom’s food.”
But that might not always be the case, he points out. For example, a restaurant might use the word “organic” loosely, creating the impression that everything on the menu comes from the farm right around the corner. “When I use the word ‘organic,’ it needs to mean certified organic,” says Talley, a former natural foods grocer.
Green Sage recently drafted a policy that calls for it to be a 100 percent GMO-free restaurant by 2016, Talley reports.
Demand vs. cost
In the last few years, natural food stores and conventional grocery outlets alike have seen increased consumer demand for organic and non-GMO foods. In 2014, organic products were available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and nearly three out of four conventional grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
Corina Casanova, president and chief operating officer of Chenoweth Properties, says her typical grocery list contains 90 to 95 percent organic or non-GMO products. And when she dines out with her family, “We typically choose our restaurants carefully. I am far less likely to choose a restaurant that doesn’t source their food locally and/or organically.”
Consumers, says the USDA, prefer organically produced food because of concerns about health, the environment and animal welfare, and they’re willing to pay more to get it.
That’s true locally too, says Asheville City Schools psychologist Kelly Weller, who tends to buy organic or non-GMO foods whenever it seems feasible. “Where we live, I think people will pay more because they care.”
Candler native Christina Howard, an occupational therapist who’s also with the city schools, says that although cost is an issue when she dines out, she would support restaurants in her area that raised their prices in order to offer organic and non-GMO foods.
“There really are not any restaurants in Candler that state that they offer organic and non-GMO foods, except maybe the local coffee shop,” notes Howard.
Talley, however, says the Green Sage thinks about its customers’ wallets when it considers adding more organic and non-GMO items to the menu.
“We have consciously added more and more of those ingredients since we opened in 2008, and we really only increased our prices accordingly this year,” says Talley. “We’ve always been concerned that the benchmark that people will pay for food is really what people will pay everywhere else, and we can’t be that much more.”
Mamacita’s, too, will continue to add more such items when Atwater finds affordable replacements. “Not everything we have is non-GMO or organic, but we’d like to be there,” he says. “It’s a pretty big hurdle, but we hope to get there and still be able to be an affordable eatery.”