The salt and pepper, the burgers and even the beer on tap are organic in Ukiah Brewing Co., the first restaurant in California to be certified as organic.
Greeting customers by name from one of the pub's rustic wooden tables, owner Els Cooperrider's soft demeanor doesn't betray her fierce dedication to the cause of organic, locally grown food -- a crusade that led her to fill out a 160-page application four years ago guaranteeing that every ingredient going into the home-style dishes served up at the brewery in Ukiah, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, comes from a federally certified organic provider.
But meeting U.S. Department of Agriculture standards means much more than just buying organic ingredients. There are dozens of rules to follow, and even the products used to clean countertops and fight pests must conform to USDA guidelines. And many restaurateurs who share Cooperrider's dedication to local, organic produce say they can assure their customers they're getting chemical-free food without the federal stamp.
Annie Somerville, executive chef at San Francisco's renowned Green's restaurant, says knowing that the farmers who supply her restaurant adhere to standards stricter than those required by federal law gives her confidence.
"We are totally in support of an all-organic world," Sommerville said. "But certification would be a very complex endeavor. Our guarantee comes from the chef to the consumer, not from USDA."
Cooperrider acknowledges that the application is expensive and time-consuming: It costs as much as $1,600 a year and takes her and her son a week of work to renew it.
But the former biologist, who believes that her restaurant is helping to take the lead in satisfying consumers' growing interest in knowing exactly what goes into their food, says the certainty she can give her customers makes it worth the trouble.
"How else would my customers know that things are really organic?" she asked.
Ukiah Brewing is only the country's second organically certified restaurant, after Restaurant Nora in Washington, but the numbers show people are eating more organic items every year.
Sales of organic produce have more than doubled from 2000 through 2004 to $12.7 billion a year and are expected to double again by 2008.
Food service represents only 2% of organic produce sold, but Holly Givens, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Assn., expects the market to grow as diners who are using organic products at home start expecting their favorite restaurants to follow the same standards.
The USDA doesn't require establishments that tout their food as organic to be certified. Restaurants taking the extra step see it as a way to show customers that organic standards, verified by a third party, are respected at every step between the farm and their plate, Givens said.
For farmers like Adam Gaska, who grows produce in Mendocino County's rolling green hills, having an organically certified restaurant just 10 miles away is a guarantee that his fruits and vegetables will find a good home.
"They take more, and more consistently, than the farmers' market, and the customers appreciate what they're getting," he said.
Prices may not be as good as in retail, Gaska says, but the farmer knows he'll make the sale -- and get a little publicity on the side, because the restaurant often tells customers where the food comes from.
The menu from Tom Altreuter, Ukiah Brewing's chef, is eclectic, and some of his biggest challenges are finding organic ethnic ingredients like spicy hoisin sauce, rice noodles and dried chilies. Exhaustive searches often end in Altreuter making his own condiments -- or tossing out the entree idea and starting over.
Even common ingredients can be troublesome. The pub tries to rely on local producers like Gaska. But sometimes small farmers can't come up with 50 pounds of tomatoes on demand, Altreuter said. The menu warns, "Items are subject to availability of organic ingredients."
All this makes running the restaurant more expensive.
Ukiah Brewing hasn't turned a profit in its 4 1/2 years, but Cooperrider says she isn't worried -- it typically takes restaurants five years to be profitable.