As American consumers continue to become more informed about the food they eat, more are turning to organic products, and stores, restaurants and food producers are responding to meet the demand.
Organic food is grown without using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Organic meat comes from livestock fed organic feed and raised without drugs, antibiotics or growth hormones. Official organic food certifications are allocated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Opinions and study results differ on the health benefits of organic foods, but many consumers who choose organic foods do so at least in part because they believe it is healthier than conventionally produced food.
The growing demand for organic food in recent years has helped spawn television shows, magazines and websites devoted to providing information for “foodies” who are obsessed with the quality of the food they consume. The movement also is being driven by the growing popularity of “field to table” food and “field to fork” restaurants.
“As people learn more about what they are putting into their bodies, they demand the best,” said Nick Bandoch, spokesman for Balistreri-owned and operated Sendik’s Food Markets.
Many who eat organic food also say it tastes better than conventionally produced food.
An increasing number of area restaurants are using at least some organic ingredients.
For example, several ingredients used by restaurants in the SURG Restaurant Group, which has several restaurants in the Milwaukee area, are organic and come from local farmers. The ingredients are chosen by the chefs of the restaurants.
“They are looking for the best ingredients to make the best food,” said Jaime Jacobs, marketing director for SURG.
“People see (organic food) as a premium product,” said Pam Mehnert, general manager for Outpost Natural Foods, a grocery co-op that has four stores in the Milwaukee area. “From our experience, most people believe the taste is better. (Organic food) is not picked too early and then gassed and shipped across the country.”
In the United States, sales of organic products increased by 11.5 percent last year to $35.1 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic sales account for more than 4 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to industry statistics tracked by the USDA. Organic products are now available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores in the United States and nearly three out of four conventional grocery stores, according to the USDA.
Even in Wisconsin, where residents notoriously indulge in unhealthy foods such as bratwursts, cream puffs and cheese curds, more organic food businesses are emerging to meet the rising demand for higher quality and healthier food.
- Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, the first nationally certified organic grocer in the U.S., opened a store on the East Side of Milwaukee in 2006 and now plans to open a store in the Mayfair Collection development at Burleigh Street and U.S. Highway 45 in Wauwatosa.
- Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, a new specialty grocery store chain with a large organic food component, plans to open stores in downtown Milwaukee and in Brookfield.
- Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative opened a new 16,700-square-foot store in Mequon in May. It was the fourth store overall for Outpost and its first outside of Milwaukee County. Outpost says it is the fourth-largest natural foods co-op, by sales, in the United States.
- Organic grocery store Good Harvest Market plans to build a new 23,000-square-foot store about a quarter mile west of its existing 12,000-square-foot store at 1850 Meadow Lane in Waukesha.
Ahead of their time
“Our growth has been phenomenal,” said Good Harvest co-owner Jody Nolan. “It has really been a labor of love.”
Nolan and her husband, Joe, opened Good Harvest Market in 2005. Joe was a financial advisor for Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. for 25 years. Jody is a ceramic artist who taught at Carroll University in Waukesha.
Jody said the idea for their business started, “just based on a conversation Joe and I had on the challenge of finding a grocery list of organic food. A year later we were opening a store.”
It wasn’t easy launching an organic grocery store in Waukesha in 2005. It was a new concept for the area at the time.
“It was rough the first five years as a startup,” Jody said. “It was tough starting out because there was no market in Waukesha. It was very difficult starting from scratch.”
The Nolans say they sensed consumer sentiment shifting more toward organic food during the Great Recession.
“I think people really reassessed where they spent their money,” Joe said. “(Consumers wondered) should we go out to eat, or should we eat at home but spend a little more on groceries? I think that’s the start of (the consumer shift toward organic products). People decided to eat more at home and to eat healthier.”
More established grocers have been adding organic food products as their customers increasingly ask for them.
“Our guests have made more and more requests, and we’re finding the suppliers to meet their standards,” said Bandoch of Sendik’s Food Markets, known for its red bag. “Our job is to listen (to the customers) and what they are looking for. Certainly (demand for organic food is) ramping up as people become more educated shoppers.”
Sendik’s Food Markets stores now have 80 to 100 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables.
Bandoch said Sendik’s has had year-over-year “double digit growth” in organic food sales for the past couple of years.
“It’s definitely an area of growth,” he said. “This is certainly a hot trend and I don’t see it slowing down at all.”
Grasch Foods in Brookfield, which has been in business for 57 years, started to add organic products about 10 years ago and has been increasing the number of organic products in recent years.
“In the last three to five years we’ve been offering quite a bit more,” said co-owner Bob Grasch. “We try to offer at least one organic item in each category. The public in general is more interested in organic products because of what they hear in the media.”
It has become easier to provide organic products as more farmers are producing organic food, Bandoch said.
Like the Nolans, Doug Ney’s organic food venture got off to a rough start. Ney is the owner of Ney’s Big Sky, a Slinger-based organic meat producer.
Ney and his brother, Chris, took over their parents’ farm in the early 1990s and converted it to an organic meat production business.
“We wanted to be a little different,” Nye said. “We wanted to set ourselves apart. It was tough in the early years. We were kind of pioneers. People looked at you like, ‘What are you doing?’”
At times during the early years they considered giving up the organic business, Ney said. But then things started to turn around about 12 years ago when they started selling their products at local farmer’s markets. Farmer’s market customers gravitate toward locally produced organic food, and by selling at local farmer’s markets, word spread about Ney’s.
Ney’s now participates at the South Shore Farmers’ Market and at farmer’s markets in West Bend, Brookfield and Greenfield.
The number of farmer’s markets has been on the rise for at least 20 years in the United States, growing from 1,755 markets in 1994, when the USDA began to track them, to more than 8,144 in 2013. There were 20 farmer’s markets last year in Milwaukee County and several additional markets in suburban counties.
“Our big boom was when we started at farmer’s markets,” Ney said. “Every year (since) has been growth, which has been exciting but also challenging. I haven’t had a down year since I started selling at the farmer’s markets.”
In addition to the farmer’s market patrons, Ney’s other customers include restaurants, grocery stores (including Metcalfe’s Sentry, which has stores in Madison and Wauwatosa) and direct sales. The company can ship products to 48 states.
Although the business is today operated in Slinger, the farm is located in Manitowoc, and Ney’s contracts out the processing work. Ney’s raises its livestock and each year harvests about 400 steers, 250 to 300 chickens and 200 pigs.
“Our growth has been great,” Nye said. “There’s a group of consumers that are becoming educated (about food) and want a better product.”
Good Harvest Market has also had impressive growth in recent years, which had led to the plans for the new store. The business has grown 60 percent from 2010 to 2013.
“All of the natural food industry has grown substantially,” Joe Nolan said.
Nolan is a board member of the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association and this fall will become chair elect for the organization, which is a group of more than 200 natural food stores around the country.
Taste the difference
About one-third of the ingredients in the food at Beans and Barley Market & Café in Milwaukee is organic. The restaurant strives to offer healthy, locally sourced food and is very open to customers about where its ingredients come from, said Danielle Oliver, floor manager and deli manager. But the high price of organic food limits the amount of organic ingredients Beans and Barley can use, she said.
“The price for organic ingredients is very, very steep,” Oliver said. “For us to still be able to run a business it would be an astronomical cost (to be fully organic).”
The rising demand for organic food has encouraged more farmers to produce organic products. That should help drive down the price of organic food, but more producers are needed, Joe Nolan said.
Still, organic food consumers have shown they are willing to pay a higher price for the product.
“People have become willing to put their money where their health is,” Jody Nolan said.
For many restaurants in the area, providing organic ingredients goes hand-in-hand with providing locally sourced ingredients.
Braise restaurant in Milwaukee specializes in locally sourced ingredients, some of which is certified organic and some from farmers that follow organic principals but do not have the official organic certification. Braise owner David Swanson wants to reconnect customers to, and help support, local farmers.
“I think more places are (using locally sourced ingredients),” said Braise dining room manager Rebecca Howes. “I do think we tend to do it to a larger extent than most places do. The food tastes fresh. I feel you can really taste the difference.”
Central Greens, an aquaponics business that started in April 2013 in Milwaukee, is a supplier for some local restaurants, including Café 1505 in Mequon, Blue’s Egg in Milwaukee and Maxie’s in Milwaukee. The business raises tilapia fish and uses waste from the fish to fertilize herbs and lettuce it grows. The fish and plant products are sold to local grocery stores, including Sendik’s, Outpost and a few independent stores, and restaurants. The business was profitable within three months of opening and now has four employees and five partners.
Central Greens plans to seek organic certification in the next few months.
“We’ve seen a lot of interest in the last six months since we got our name out there,” said Bowen Dornbrook, one of the partners of Central Greens. “We’re always attracting new clients interested in local foods that are fresh and nutritionally dense.”
About 90 percent of Good Harvest Market’s products are organic. The store also is a major showcase for local organic food producers.
“We have well over 100 local producers, manufacturers and farmers,” Joe Nolan said. “We are really incubators for these local, independent producers that might eventually make it big. Whole Foods won’t take a chance on them.”
Organic food producers hope that more consumers will take a chance on their products and that the popularity of organic food will continue to grow.
“Our chefs will all tell you that you can’t make something good without the best ingredients,” Jacobs said.