Berkeley’s Nomad Cafe, one of a small but growing number of local eateries to earn a “Green” designation from the Bay Area’s Green Business Program, serves only coffee that is certified organic and fair trade, with only organic milk to dilute it. Most of the Nomad’s teas and produce are organic, and until two months ago, its sandwiches also were made almost entirely from organic ingredients—and cost a whopping $7.50 each. Back in July of 2003, a few customers began voicing their annoyance with the Nomad’s sandwich prices on the Beast Blog, an East Bay online forum for dining and culture. But, as organic sandwiches go, this price is pretty standard. Today, only one of the Nomad’s sandwiches—the Parma, made of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and organic basil on a sourdough baguette—costs $7.50, and the price tag reflects some of the issues faced by today’s socially conscious sandwich chef.
During the summer, when local basil is in season, Nomad Caf� owner Christopher Waters buys his at the Berkeley Farmers’ market, from Blue Heron Farms in Watsonville and Riverdog Farms. In the winter and spring months, Waters gets his basil from Berkeley Bowl, which sells organic basil from a cooperative in Mexico called Del Cabo, a network of 250 small organic family farms founded by the nonprofit Small Scale Farmers Association.
“You can’t build something into your menu, program it into your cash register, and then only be able to offer it sometimes.” says Waters, who looks for ingredients that he can get year-round, while at the same time striving to support small local organic farmers. “We’ve tried to see if they can deliver to us on a regular basis, but they’re like us—they just don’t have the resources to produce the same thing dependably all the time.”
Brian Boyce, assistant farm manager at Riverdog Farms in the Capay Valley, has another take. He says that “the picture of the small farmer struggling to keep up with demand” is a misrepresentation, because small size doesn’t necessarily lead to unreliable supply.
Still, size matters. Small restaurants like the Nomad often can’t buy in high enough volume to make it worthwhile for the farms to send out a delivery van. Organic produce wholesalers like San Francisco’s Veritable Vegetable, which operate on a slightly larger scale than individual farms, have high delivery minimums, while wholesalers specializing in restaurant delivery, like SF-based GreenLeaf Produce, charge a significant markup—GreenLeaf’s organic basil costs $1.90 more per dozen bunches than Berkeley Bowl’s. Waters says that this cost differential is what divides “small-small businesses,” like the Nomad, from “large-small businesses,” like Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, which goes through enough produce each day that it can afford deliveries.
Hailing from the East Bay bakery Semifreddi’s, the baguette is not organic, but it does fit with Waters’ desire to keep things local and artisanal. At $1.35 per 15-oz. baguette (exactly enough for four sandwiches), this isn’t your run-of-the-mill French bread, but organic bread would have raised the cost even more. Berkeley-based Acme Bread Company uses only organic flour, which costs 50-100 percent more than conventional flour, and charges roughly $1.35 per 12-oz. baguette on the small orders Waters would need (and about 95 cents per baguette for large orders to places like Chez Panisse). Again, the real issue here is delivery. Although there are several producers of organic bread in the Bay Area, none of them make deliveries of both bread and pastries—two of the Nomad’s most essential products. Acme does not sell its pastries wholesale, so Waters would still need to find another pastry supplier if he used Acme baguettes. Since it can be costly to get regular deliveries from multiple suppliers, a small caf� like the Nomad stands to benefit from getting its ingredients in one go.
Supplied by Dairy Delivery, the Santa Rosa-based distributor that also provides the Nomad’s organic milk and half-and-half, this non-organic mozzarella costs $4.13 per pound. Amy Kramer, owner of Dairy Delivery, says that organic mozzarella is hard to find, and that, given the already high cost of fresh mozzarella, an organic version “would be really pricey.”
Horizon Organic makes fresh mozzarella, according to Horizon’s Jessica Jackson. But this cheese isn’t available wholesale, and none of the big local natural foods retailers carry it; it’s not sold at Berkeley Bowl, Andronico’s, or in any of the Northern California Whole Foods locations.
“In a perfect world,” says Waters, who is vegan, “I wouldn’t serve meat at all because I don’t eat it, but in foodservice you have to offer what people demand.” This ham, imported from Italy and distributed locally by Van Rex Gourmet Foods in Oakland, isn’t certified organic, free range, or fair trade. Some items, including Parma ham, just don’t come in the certified organic variety. But at least it’s from a family farm, says Waters, and in the age of corporate hog farming, that’s worth something. Some local producers, such as Niman Ranch and Golden Gate Meat, make hormone-free and free-range prosciuttos that cost less than the Italian import Waters uses, but because these companies produce only meat, Waters can’t tack on other items to the delivery. Also, all of the locally produced prosciuttos require slicing. Waters needs a pre-sliced meat to minimize labor costs for his small staff, who can’t afford to waste precious minutes during the lunchtime rush.
Once upon a time, Waters served a chicken peperonata sandwich ($7.50) made with free-range chicken, but “we were basically losing our shirts on it.” Each whole chicken cost him $2.20-2.98 a pound; conventionally farmed whole Foster Farms chickens go for around $1.49 per pound.