The tides are shifting on food purchases, as consumers steer away from GMOs and toward “clean” food. The shift is also reflected in one of our most popular American activities: eating out, whether at a fast-food drive-through, a chain restaurant, or an exclusive fine dining venue. A preference for GMO-free restaurants is one of the top ten food trends for 2016, according to Technomic. Restaurants nationwide are picking up on the trend. Following Chipotle’s bold decision in 2013 to disclose GMO ingredients, other eateries are aiming to do as well or better. The Organic Coup in Pleasanton, California recently became the nation’s first certified organic fast food restaurant. Washington, DC-based Sweetgreen, which serves fresh, locally sourced foods, now boasts 27 locations. TownHall restaurant in Cleveland offers 36 non-GMO items and hopes to have its entire restaurant verified by the Non-GMO Project.
Will you choose your Burger King around the corner or visit Amy’s Kitchen’s new Drive Thru, where you can pick up a completely organic veggie burger, shake and fries for under $9? In the mood for Mexican? Will it be Taco Bell or Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill (mostly in Southern California), for a dinner of organic quinoa and greens salads to mesquite-grilled tofu to Non-GMO Project verified corn tortillas? It’s up to you—and as more consumers make the latter choice, they’re learning first-hand through taste and peace of mind (an aid to good digestion) that food choices make a significant difference in their lives.
Local food sourcing, non-GMO commitment
Birchwood Cafe is a good example of the trend. The 3,600 square-foot restaurant nestled next to the Mississippi River in the heart of Minneapolis, was a popular mom-and-pop grocery store when Tracy Singleton purchased it in 1995. Reborn as a café serving organic and non-GMO entrees for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, Birchwood stands apart for its sourcing of quality food. Eggs, meats, cheeses and most of the fruits, veggies and grains are sourced from organic farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and one in Iowa.
“We’ve been unwavering in our sourcing,” Tracy said. “Either the chef or I have been to visit each grower, and if we don’t have a direct relationship, we used certified organic or verified non-GMO whenever possible.”
It’s not easy ferreting out GMOs in every recipe you want to present. Non-GMO cooking oil, sugar, and dairy are essential staples to procure. “We lost two long-term vendors over the GMO issue,” said Tracy. “One dairy vendor dropped his organic brand and a poultry farmer wasn’t willing to disclose information about his feed sources. It’s tough, but those are the decisions you’ve got to make.”
Tracy grew a passion for fresh, local foods working for five years at a restaurant operated by Lucia Watson, a pioneer in the local food movement. When the opportunity to buy Birchwood presented itself, she implemented a similar sourcing model. “At first it was literally asking farmers, ‘Do you know who grows…(x,y,z)?’ Now it’s much easier to source locally—all that information has been compiled … I’m proud that our meticulous digging helped create that list!”
Advocate for GMO labeling
Tracy has become an influential advocate for GMO labeling. In 2011-2012, she became involved in Right to Know Minnesota after watching the defeat of California’s Prop 37. Last year she testified before the state House Commerce Committee as a small business owner. “I had Birchwood’s granola product verified by the Non-GMO Project, and I asked the committee, ‘Why should I have to pay to prove that my product doesn’t have GMOs, which is what my buyers want?’ ”
Right to Know MN is strongly involved in the federal labeling issue, encouraging consumers to speak up against the DARK Act. Last fall, she traveled to D.C. with a group of organic farmers, lobbying senators prior to the Senate Agriculture Committee’s hearing on biotech foods.
Birchwood Cafe’s 58 employees (expanding to 70 in summer) serve tasty concoctions derived from seasonal produce. Birchwood’s chefs add herbs from the kitchen garden out back to Haddock à orange, Green Curry Rice, Savory Waffles, or freshly baked goods and locally brewed beers.
“People are willing to pay for food they can trust,” Tracy said. “We let them know exactly what they’re eating, and avoiding GMOs is primary. Lots of customers have changed their purchasing habits after eating at our café.”
Birchwood has been involved with the True Food Chef Council bringing wholesome food to the Minneapolis Public Schools; Homegrown Minneapolis, an initiative to grow, process, distribute and compost sustainable, locally grown food; and Birchwood Boost, an initiative creating partnerships with non-profits to engage the community in timely social issues.