By Carey Wedler, Anti-Media
(ANTIMEDIA) The United States’ first certified organic fast food chain also pays its workers a living wage — and they’re having success with consumers as they expand beyond their first two locations.
Organic Coup was founded by the leaders of Costco’s highly lucrative organic division. Under the leadership of Dennis Hoover, a 33-year veteran of the wholesale chain, Costco became one of the country’s largest organic retailers, even lending funds to organic farmers to help them keep up with demand. Hoover launched Organic Coup last year, and thanks to his reputation, the growing chain secured funding from Jim Sinegal, Costco’s founder and former CEO, and Richard Galanti, Costco’s Chief Financial Officer.
Organic Coup, which, according to its website, rejects “Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), toxic chemicals and pesticides, [and] the use of antibiotics or added hormones in livestock,” started small in Northern California. Its first two outlets in San Francisco and Pleasanton started serving a variety of USDA-certified organic products, and they’re also certified by the nonprofit California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). As Anti-Media summarized last year:
“The two locations currently open for business, both located in Northern California, serve crispy chicken sandwiches fried in organic coconut oil and topped with spicy organic vegetables on an organic bun. The chicken is provided by the popular organic brand, Mary’s Chicken and also comes in wrap and bowl form. Organic Coup offers a variety of organic sauces, as well as chicken tenders on the side.
“For dessert, Organic Coup serves organic popcorn drizzled in organic chocolate and caramel (perhaps a more appealing option to health conscious consumers than McDonald’s recent addition of chocolate drizzled fries). They also plan to add organic tater tots and breakfast burritos to the menu.”
Sure enough, they now offer breakfast burritos (with the option to add guacamole), as well as breakfast bowls – and of course, tater tots. As we noted last year, there are some small caveats:
“While the ambitious project is encouraging, it’s important to note that USDA organic certification does not guarantee designated products are 100 percent organic. By the federal agency’s standards, to receive the general organic label, foods can be just 95 percent organic. Further, though the company touts its commitment to sustainability, non-meat eaters might balk at the claim, considering the chain’s main ingredient is chicken. Mary’s Chicken is considered Step 3 organic, which, while organic, has lower standards than the highest Step 5 ranking.”
Nevertheless, Organic Coup’s adherence to these standards represents far more than any other fast food chain currently on the market — an effort they view as a form of protest.
“A ‘coup’ is a takeover — and that’s our vision: an organic takeover of the fast food industry. Totally disruptive and bold,” the company explains. “The Organic Coup represents a new day and a new attitude about fast food – fast food can be good food.”
Most impressively, workers at the San Francisco location are paid $16 per hour while those at their increasing number of locations earn $14 per hour. As we reported:
“‘We believe in ‘Team Coup’ (our employees) and we are investing in them with a livable wage that sets a new standard in fast food,’ their website reads. While fast food employees across the country protest in favor of government-mandated higher wages, Organic Coup is setting its own standards.”
They also prioritize promoting employees to higher positions rather than hiring from outside the company.
Organic Coup spokeswoman Erica Welton attributes their ability to pay well and serve organic food to a variety of factors. “We have a very tight menu and have very focused metrics. We have amazing partners who believe in what we are doing and are committed to our success,” she told Anti-Media in an email.
Thanks to the $7 million in funding they secured last year, Organic Coup is expanding. This time last year they had two locations — now they have nine. From Oakland to Berkeley to Pleasant Hill, the chain is still rooted in the Bay Area — but they are continuing to branch out.
According to Welton, Organic Coup is opening a location in Seattle this year and looking for other unique outposts. “We are looking to open in our first NFL stadium this year and our first tech cafeteria,” she said, also expressing a desire to expand to Los Angeles — ideally at Disneyland. She says the company is also looking to take on Las Vegas and eventually, the whole world.
Though the menu centers around chicken, which, to an increasing number of consumers is unsustainable, Welton says they offer some vegetarian and vegan options, as well. “We have a vegetarian wrap — multigrain tortilla, oat chia flax cabbage, carrots, pickled onions, jalapeños guacamole, and crispy potatoes,” she said. They’re also testing out an organic, vegan acai bowl.
While the food options and flavors are certainly a draw (full disclaimer: I’ve tried it and love it), it’s the philosophy and goals underlying them that make Organic Coup a smart choice for increasingly conscious eaters. They believe education is vital to changing the currently dismal scope of fast food in the United States, and they seek to provide more accountability. “When you buy fast food or fast casual it doesn’t come with a list of ingredients,” Welton says. “Websites have them listed but how many people really take the time to dig in and compare. We are all so busy!”
Instead, she says, “We want to be the first fast food/fast casual in America to serve our food with ingredient statement.” In doing so, the chain may be able to start a trend in food transparency.
Still, she doesn’t chastise bigger fast food chains that are slowly adopting cleaner ingredients. Companies like McDonald’s have slowly begun making minor changes to make their menus more appealing to the changing preferences of American consumers, who are increasingly concerned with the low-quality food offered by such fast food giants; for example, McDonald’s recently stopped using antibiotics in their chicken, though they have not made such a commitment to their beef. To some, like this Anti-Media reporter, it’s a sign of a positive trend — but it’s not enough. To Welton, however, any improvements are welcome.
“I believe all efforts to clean up food should be applauded! It took us 40, 50 maybe 60 years to get in this situation,” she says. “[It’s] hard to turn big ships like McDonald’s or Chick-Fil-A. This is why it was so important for us to be certified organic. We live to this USDA Organic standard-food, ingredients, cleaning supplies. We want our customers to have confidence in what we are serving. We are going all the way.”