The U.S. Northwest is known for its vibrant environments and vast amounts of local organic farming, all of which being consistently protective through political activism. In fact, both Portland, 56 restaurants, and Seattle, 78 restaurants, are among the top nine cities with the most organic food restaurants, according to Organicauthority.com and urbanspoon.com.
However, Eugene isn’t too shabby itself in having many organic restaurants, whether it’s exclusively organic or mostly organic. In fact, 12%, or 30 out of 250, of Eugene’s total restaurants are listed as organic, according to tripadvisor.com and urbanspoon.com. The most recent to join these ranks is Red Wagon Creamery, owned by Stuart and Emily Phillips.
“Red Wagon Creamery is a small-batch ice-cream company,” Mr. Phillips said. “We make artisan flavors using local ingredients from scratch.”
In a city dedicated to organic and local food, however, opening up a new organic food hub is not easy. But Mr. Phillips thinks he has the right formula to compete in this popular Eugene market.
“We compete by focusing on unique flavors that are sourced locally,” Phillips said. “A lot of other places buy organically from big distributors instead of going to the farmers market and picking out the ingredients themselves.”
And his strategy seems to be working well. After the new, organic ice cream parlor opened up only a couple of weeks ago in downtown Eugene it seems there is nothing to worry about for Phillips.
“It has been more popular than I would have thought in its first couple weeks,” Maddy Henshaw, an employee of Red Wagon, said. “I think Stuart mentioned making more money this last month then they made in a whole year as a food cart.”
However, Red Wagon is just one organic restaurant in this city and after the freshness of a new ice cream parlor subsides, it must compete with the established organic hubs of Eugene.
Cozmic Pizza is an all-organic pizza restaurant in the heart of downtown Eugene. Even the soda that they serve to their customers is not brand name, like Pepsi or Coke.
“People come to Cozmic for all organic food and when we offer them soda they kind of scoff,” Cozmic Pizza General Manager, Alec Cox, said. “When we tell them it is also organic, from agave plant, they are much more receptive.”
“Two years ago, we had a bad reputation in organic food and service around Eugene,” Cox continued. “However, over the last eight months we have grown a bunch because, I think, people realize our ingredients are local and completely organic.”
Although both restaurants are organic, they are different enough not to have to compete with each other. Red Wagon gets their ingredients from the farmers market to set themselves apart and Cozmic tries to do things a little different as well.
“We try to provide our customers with an experience that is healthy,” Cox said. “We try to have fun with it and make unique flavors that hopefully our customers enjoy.”
However, Eugene takes it a step further than the number of organic restaurants by, once a term, bringing in locally grown foods for an organic feast in the University dining venues.
Carson and Barnhart, the two buffet-style venues on campus, have a Farm-to-Fork meal. Mollee Bennett, a resident of University Housing as a three-time Resident Assistant, has been to many Farm to Fork meals in dining.
“I think Farm to fork is a really good opportunity to showcase the importance of eating locally grown, organic foods to new students who may have never tried it before,” Bennett said. “I think it demonstrates just how potent the influence of the food culture in Eugene is that we have this event in our residence halls.”
However, for as popular as the seemingly young organic movement is in Eugene and the rest of the Northwest, there are still issues with the definition of organic.
According to the USDA website, for organic food to receive the proper certification, it must first have its operations certified under the USDA guidelines as well as provide a history of the substances applied to the crop in the last three years, among other requirements.
Unfortunately, not everything labeled organic on the shelves can be trusted. According to an article by the Seattle Times, foods that are not organic end up on the shelves officially labeled as organic because the USDA does not enforce their own rules.
“I feel like it’s necessary for consumers to be informed about the food they are eating,” Bennett said. “There is room for improvement when it comes to the regulation of this food.”
For organic restaurants this should be an issue. According to Mr. Phillips, all organic restaurants are supposed to have a paper trail that leads back to the organic farmer through different organizations.
However, as easy as that process seems to be, Phillips said customers should always be weary because there are always going to be places that claim they are organic when they aren’t.
“It is realistic to have that with business, not knowing what is truthful on the other side of the counter,” Cox said. “But we get our ingredients from local farms when we can, even though there it usually costs one dollar more per pound, we are committed to producing 100% organic food.”
Eugene, in particular, has one of the highest percent of organic restaurants compared to total restaurants within its city limits at 12%, according to tripadvisor.com and urbanspoon.com. However, Portland, two percent, and Seattle, three and a half percent, are the faces of the organic popularity in the Northwest.
As Eugene is trying to separate itself from the umbrella that is the nationwide organic movement. That may be a lot more difficult than a surplus of organic restaurants.
According to the Organic Trade Association, the nation’s total organic food sales have risen from $1 billion in 1990 to just under $27 million in 2010.
The USDA has noticed the same growth over the years. Its website confirms a double-digit growth over the last decade in the sales of organic foods.
However, not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of naturally grown crops and naturally fed animals. Even in Eugene, full of support, there are people who do not want to join this ever-growing movement.
“I just don’t think it is worth it for a lot of people,” said Caleb Conley, a University of Oregon student. “The cost of organic food in comparison to the taste just isn’t worth it for me, that’s why I’ve never really been a fan.”
The Eugene community has always been an image of inclusion and support for differing views. The ratio of those who support organic and those who don’t may be well shy of 50-50, but it is clear which direction Eugene is moving towards.
With its new Red Wagon Creamery, Eugene as a city adds to its already vast organic selections. And those large organic numbers are part of the reason Eugene is unique in an already unique world.