Fast Food Goes Organic

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The history of the demand for organic food starts where you would expect: at a little farm in the country, with a farmer picking his way through his field.

That's nice and quaint, but not business for the masses. Co-ops brought the food to more people. Farmers markets caught on, even blocking traffic on busy streets in big cities like New York and Washington. Whole Foods transplanted the idea into corporate America, helping the growth of vast fields of organic produce throughout California.

Now there is organic fast food, and the options for it in the Washington area are about to grow. Organic to Go, a Seattle company founded in 2004, said yesterday that it has purchased locally based High Noon's four cafes, as well as its catering operation, and plans to turn the lunch hot spots into places where office workers can flee their cubicles and devour a meatloaf sandwich made with organic beef.

"We're trying to get more food that is of higher quality from organic and natural producers in the path of where people work, and that will in turn help to grow our company," said Jason Brown, Organic to Go's founder and chief executive.

The company is taking the Whole Foods prepared-food concept out of the grocery store and into places where people work and spend their days. With High Noon, Organic to Go gets District locations in busy business downtown corridors, including at 15th and K streets, and 19th and F streets. "If you stand outside High Noon and look around, there are great offices all over filled with people," Brown said. "That's who the customers are."

The average lunch customer is probably different from a decade ago, when standard fast-food fare would have done just fine. People who eat meals out increasingly want more nutritious food.

More than 76 percent of the people in a recent poll by the National Restaurant Association said they are trying to eat out more healthfully than they were two years ago. Another survey by the organization, this one of U.S. chefs, showed the No. 2 and No. 3 hottest trends were locally grown and organic produce, respectively -- after bite-size desserts.

Those healthy eating trends are bumping into the quick-service segment of the restaurant industry, which is expanding faster than traditional table-service restaurants, according to Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association.

Valerie Killifer, the editor of Fast Casual magazine, which focuses on restaurants serving quick meals, said consumer interest in eateries that serve nutritious food fast is poised to expand quickly. "Right now it's just on the ground level," she said, "but the opportunity is only going to grow."

Organic to Go opened its first cafe three years ago in a small strip mall in Issaquah, Wash. The four High Noon restaurants -- three in the District and one in Virginia -- bring its total cafe count to 33, including outposts in and around Seattle, San Diego and Los Angeles. Organic to Go, though not profitable, gets about half of its revenue from its cafes and grab-and-go stations. The other half comes through catering to corporations and universities.

High Noon was founded by Mark Ordan, who took to the business of offering good food faster after he sold his Fresh Fields grocery chain to Whole Foods in 1996 for $150 million. Ordan, with the backing of Bear Stearns Merchant Banking, later purchased a gourmet grocery chain that ultimately became Balducci's, bringing High Noon into the fold.

Terms of the deal with Organic to Go were not disclosed.

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