Fries With That?

California’s first certified organic restaurant does not serve soy dogs, beet juice, or almond milk lattes. The staples here are burgers and fries, fish and chips and, above all else: beer.

The Ukiah Brewing Company & Restaurant does cook up vegetarian and even vegan lunch and dinner plates, including a veggie burger on a scrumptious, fresh-baked sourdough bun, which I ate on a rainy Saturday visit. But the menu also offers patty melts, corned beef, and Flemish pot roast, meals that appeal to a crowd less likely to be spotted in the aisles of health food stores and organic farmers markets.

“Most people want cheap, fast food. They don’t care about the quality, or if it was grown here,” says co-owner Els Cooperrider. “It doesn’t say ‘organic’ in the windows because people equate organic with tofu and sprouts, not fish and chips and beer.”

Cooperrider opened the brew pub with her son Bret in May 2000 after three years of planning and filling out scores of pages of regulatory forms needed to secure local, state, and federal certification. “The idea came from Bret, a brewer for ten years,” she says. “He wanted to start his own brewery. He called up and asked, how about moving to Colorado to start a brewery? We said we’d help out, but he would have to come out here because we’re not leaving Mendocino.”

Cooperrider has been very active in local food politics and is known as “Mother H” for her work in support of the 2004 Mendocino County measure that bans growing genetically modified crops throughout the county. A biologist by training, she organized for GMO-free Mendocino and held meetings on the second floor balcony at the brew pub. She also helped cofound Mendocino Renegade, a countywide organic certifier, but she stepped down to avoid conflict of interest while seeking certification for the restaurant.

On the corner of South State and Perkins streets in downtown Ukiah, the restaurant is housed in an 1875 mercantile building that has been everything from a Greyhound bus station to a wedding dress emporium. The dining room is large and open, with a sustainably harvested tan oak wood floor and high red brick walls. The scratched, dark, wood tables and chairs came from a Disney World sale in Florida, and the 1600-pound bar is the original from the backroom watering hole of the old Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

Bret Cooperrider had heard tales about this bar for over a year when a man walked in off the street and said he had an old bar stored in his barn that he wanted to sell.

The feel inside is warm and neighborly, like a pub rather than a novelty restaurant. In fact, there is scant evidence on display of the regulatory hoops, the higher costs, or the politics behind organic certification. Only the menu boasts that the diner is seated in “The Organic Brewpub, serving only certified organic ingredients and wild (never farmed) fish.”

The menu carries the Mendocino Renegade and California Certified Organic Farmers certification labels, but not the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic label. “I don’t like the USDA label,” explains Cooperrider. “It is totally susceptible to political pressure and lobby groups.”

Organics is the fastest growing market in produce and processed foods, and big companies want in on the political cachet of the USDA label. Companies like Kraft, Cargill, Tyson, and Coca Cola are buying up small organic companies to cash in on consumers’ trust in the concept. As they buy in, the very companies that the organics movement arose to fight are muscling the federal government to weaken standards.

Since there are no standards for restaurant certification, Cooperrider had to provide certification for every ingredient in the restaurant, from the salt and pepper to the beef and salad greens. Hence the 160 pages of forms. “Nobody had ever done it before,” she says. “We had to treat everything we serve as a processed product, so we had to present certificates of all ingredients. The costs are higher. Others pay $1 for a pack of pepper, we pay $9; a conventional chicken breast goes for $1.50, while we pay $6 for organic.”

The pub broke even in 2005, and Cooperrider hopes that 2006 will be the first year of profit. “People told us, ‘You know, you’re not gonna make it, you’re too idealistic,’ but somebody has to break new ground,” she says. “Our goal is to be small and local. We have turned down every offer to help us create a chain. We’re simply not interested.”

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