First USDA-Certified Restaurant is Well-Timed Alternative

By Jennifer Hoffman

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Like most good ideas, it started with a problem. Erica Welton, a former Costco food buyer, was frustrated by the lack of clean, quick options at lunchtime or on busy weekends. She would see people order organic greens in restaurants and then pour non-organic dressing on them—it defeated the purpose.

Welton’s restaurant, The Organic Coup, is reportedly the country’s first USDA-certified organic fast-food restaurant. USDA certification is not an easy benchmark. It means 95% or more of the ingredients served at this restaurant come from certified organic growers and farmers, as required by the USDA to receive certification.

Now you may be thinking, “Great. Another place where I can get a kale smoothie!” But that’s not the case, at all. In fact, the main menu item is The Coup Signature Sandwich—a fried chicken sandwich made with all organic ingredients and served with a side of popcorn. You can also get a chicken wrap or salad.

Welton has an aggressive growth plan for The Organic Coup. The first location in Pleasanton, CA, opened in November, and 25 are expected to open in the next 14 months. The chain will depart from the typical QSR in another big way: the starting salary at The Organic Coup is $16, which is $3.75 more per hour than the current minimum wage.

The Organic Coup is carrying out three trends we’ve witnessed in the QSR and fast-casual dining spaces in recent months:

  1. Better-for-you ingredients
  2. Simplified menu
  3. Paying employees higher wages.

For point 1, a parallel can be drawn to Panera, who made a commitment to drop artificial ingredients from its food, including 150 food additives, by the end of 2016. In the QSR segment, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King have introduced healthy and nutritious food items to their menus. According to research firm Technavio, these new items, including fruits, salads, and low-fat chocolate milk will likely contribute to market growth in the Americas through 2019.

Point 2 is reminiscent of McDonald’s realization that their menu was too complicated. In early 2015, they rolled out a simplified menu with fewer items to reduce confusion and increase speed. The Organic Coup is starting out with just three menu options and two sides.

Menu prices are tied to both menu quality and employee wages. Point 3 can be compared to Shake Shack’s recent decision to raise menu prices while paying employees more, ahead of minimum wage increases which some cities have already enacted or are currently working to legislate. There’s also something to be said for quality: Shake Shack charges more for a premium burger. Similarly, a chicken sandwich from The Organic Coup will cost you around $9. It’s a good hike from a dollar menu, but with USDA certification, you’re confident in the quality of the product you’re purchasing.

The Takeaway

In many ways, The Organic Coup represents the future of fast-food. Not all restaurants will be able to make the transition to USDA-certified menus, but the point isn’t lost. The industry is well aware of changing consumer preferences.

The decision is not one that can be made overnight, but more QSRs can start the conversation now. They may have to reformulate products, switch vendors, and possibly change how a product is made at the store-level. Such decisions may affect prices, but they can also be a great promotional opportunity for your brand.

Don’t wait too long to start the process. There are competitors at every turn, and your customer might just go for that new chicken joint down the block.

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