Late last fall, TownHall Cleveland announced that they were going to revamp their entire food menu to make it 100% non-GMO (not including beverages). The restaurant team continues to take a proactive stance on the issue, making public education part of their mission. They also add items to the eclectic menu on a regular basis, many of which are packed with organic fruits, veggies, nuts and healthy proteins. Also not to be missed are an impressive variety of fresh pressed juices and smoothies.
As the restaurant gets ready to celebrate its second anniversary, we recently grabbed TownHall’s owner Bobby George and director of operations Alex DiOrio for a Q&A to hear how things are going with the changes.
You’ve been 100% GMO free for almost six months. How has the response been from customers?
Alex: We’ve gotten phone calls and many emails from guests thanking us for taking up the challenge of becoming non-GMO and successfully completing that task. We’ve met so many customers who are on a non-GMO diet for health or other reasons, and they are thankful they have a place to enjoy a night out.
What was the most challenging aspect of making the commitment to going all non-GMO?
Bobby: The biggest challenge was sourcing. It’s much easier for larger companies to carry a good supply of non-GMO products because they have national distribution and have greater access to suppliers. They tend to get priority when purchasing organic and non-GMO products. We needed to find the same products in wholesale sizes and at wholesale prices.
What were the hardest things to find that you needed for your menu?
Alex: The hardest things were meats. Since there are very few organic or non-GMO chicken and beef suppliers, most options come to us frozen, so quality can be an issue. Additionally, grass-fed beef is leaner and gamier tasting than traditional corn/grain fed beef and we wanted to serve a product that tasted like something people expected. We needed to find a cut and a supplier that we liked. Both were significant challenges that required lots of research.
Who were a few of our most enthusiastic partners or local suppliers who helped you find these items?
Bobby: Hillcrest Food Service did the majority of the legwork in bringing products to Cleveland. They worked with us to find suppliers to willing to bring in samples and negotiate pricing. We work with Premier Produce to help us sourcing organic produce.
Berlin Natural Bakery is one of the only non-GMO bakeries in the country. Joy Zipper worked as a consultant to approve various products as non-GMO. For example, imported Parmesan cheese from Italy does not have a non-GMO verification, but Joy approved the product because she knows the process and ingredients.
Cleveland Tofu brought in organic soybeans to make us a non-GMO tofu which is very popular on our Vegan Mondays.
Alex: Blue Ribbon Meats has also been a big help to us. Tom Salopek from Blue Ribbon helped us sample new steak suppliers and reduce costs in some areas, preventing significant menu price increases.
How are you educating your staff about what GMO-free means and do they understand your commitment to it?
Bobby: Every staff meeting includes GMO education. We’re having our new hires watch Genetic Roulette and write an essay about the movie. In addition, new employees take a quiz on GMOs before they are allowed to complete their training.
Alex: We have six all-staff meetings each year. At each of those meetings, I’ll lead a GMO education session, and refresh our staff on the issue. Our staff understands our commitment to being non-GMO because they’ve seen what a struggle it was to accomplish. They watched us try to source ingredients, sample products, and introduce new menu items in conjunction with our executive chef, Erik Roth.
How has customer feedback helped you refine the menu?
Alex: Some of our more knowledgeable guests have inquired about why we use certain products. For example, we tested several types of fryer oil before settling on our current product. Customer feedback is always useful to us.
Is there a next phase or goal for this plan? What are you hoping to achieve through this effort?
Bobby: We hope to have organic soda and a GMO-free bar in the future.
Additionally, we hope other restaurants join us and strive to offer non-GMO products and dishes. As demand for GMO-free ingredients grows prices will go down for everyone and allow people to choose GMO-free foods without paying more. But as we made this change, and incurred additional costs, it was important that we not raise menu prices and we know our customers appreciated that.
TownHall has no shortage of special events and promotions, like the wildly popular Vegan Mondays and Paleo Wednesdays. The best way is to keep up with them on their social channels. Learn more about their upcoming second anniversary and a GMO education discussion in partnership with Mustard Seed Market on TownHall’s Facebook page.
— Lisa Sands