Fast Food Goes Organic
High Noon Sale Reflects Growing Appetite for Quick, Healthy Eateries

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.

The company is not first to the D.C. market with quick, organic food. Last year, three Georgetown University graduates opened a restaurant called Sweetgreen, on M Street in Georgetown. Sweetgreen serves salads that are mostly organic in environmentally friendly surroundings. The packaging is biodegradable. The owners are planning two more stores for the District, including one in Dupont Circle, and they welcomed Organic to Go to the quick organic scene.

"People are realizing that it's more important what they are eating," said Nicolas Jammet, co-owner of Sweetgreen. "Concepts like Organic to Go and us bring it down to the everyday level. I think it's good that people are starting to eat better. There is a lot of room for these kinds of concepts, and we welcome them because it expands overall interest."

Burrito chain Chipotle was perhaps the first big quick-service food outlet to catch on in the mainstream by using natural foods. The company is the country's largest restaurant buyer of naturally raised meats. The sour cream thrown onto burritos is free of synthetic growth hormones. "They are setting the bar very high," Killifer said.

Other chains popping up include Evos, a Tampa company with fast-food outlets in several states offering soy burgers and air-baked fries. Gusto Grilled Organics' flagship restaurant is in midtown Manhattan and serves eat-in, takeout, or delivery -- steak sandwiches, empanadas, pizzas and more.

Clark Wolf, a New York restaurant consultant who worked with restaurants ranging from the Russian Tea Room to hot spots in Loews Hotels, said concepts like Organic to Go "are the new hook, and we'll see what happens."

"If you believe that organic ingredients are wholesome, which I do, and that they have potential to have better flavor, which I do, then there's a good chance if they don't ruin the stuff that it could be better than the stuff out there," Wolf said. "It will entirely depend on whether it's any good."

Brown, the chief executive of Organic to Go, said it is on the hunt for local organic food providers, and it will change offerings at High Noon locations -- as well as the name -- in several months. It will add salad bars, too. Organics to Go is keeping High Noon's employees. And the company intends to expand its locations here, Brown said.

"Our goal is to pioneer this," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company