America’s First Certified Organic Fast Food Chain Is Here — and It Pays $16 an Hour
By Carey Wedler
As fast food chains like Jack in the Box and McDonald’s fight to stay afloat, a new fast food chain is challenging fundamental norms within the industry. Organic Coup is the first USDA-certified organic fast food chain in the country, offering previously unheard of healthy options and boasting formidable funding with ambitious plans to expand rapidly across the country.
Touting its organic certification, Organic Coup explains its standards, which “do not allow Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), toxic chemicals and pesticides, or the use of antibiotics or added hormones in livestock.”
Their small but savory menu reflects their approach. 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.
Though the prices are higher than traditional fast food establishments — the chicken sandwich is $9.99 — Organic Coup focuses on quality rather than price point (it’s also worth noting a comparable crispy chicken sandwich at Chili’s, a popular, non-organic casual dining restaurant, is $8.79).
The company, which just secured funding to open two dozen new storefronts in the next year, openly describes its intention to revolutionize the fast food industry:
“A ‘coup’ is a takeover — and that’s our vision: an organic takeover of the fast food industry. Totally disruptive and bold,” they explain. “The Organic Coup represents a new day and a new attitude about fast food – fast food can be good food.”
But Organic Coup also seeks to disrupt the fast food industry in another way.
“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.
As Business Insider recently reported, “Organic Coup is paying starting wages of $16 an hour in San Francisco and $14 an hour in Pleasanton. Fast-food workers in the US make $7.98 an hour on average, according to PayScale.”
The new chain’s philosophy of using only organic ingredients and treating its employees well mirrors the approach of the company’s two core investors, who just provided $7 million in the first round of funding: Jim Sinegal, Costco’s founder and former CEO, and Richard Galanti, Costco’s Chief Financial Officer. Though Costco does not exclusively sell organic products, it recently expanded to provide abundant options to consumers; and with $4 billion in annual organic sales, the warehouse retailer has surpassed Whole Foods in profits. To accommodate the explosion in consumers’ desire for organic products, Costco has even begun lending money to organic farmers, who have found themselves struggling to keep up with demand.
This transition to organic products was made possible, in part, by Dennis Hoover, a 33-year Costco veteran who previously managed 53 Northern California Costco locations and helped turn Costco into the biggest seller of organic foods in the world. Fittingly, as a result of this success, Hoover is at the helm of Organic Coup. As Galanti said, “I have complete confidence in him — he’s a great operator,” Business Insider reported. Hoover has partnered with Erica Welton, a former food buyer for Costco, to run the chain.
Organic Coup is also taking a page from Costco in its decision to pay its workers fairly. As Hoover said, “Our model is based on that Costco model of efficiency and paying employees a great wage.” As their website explains, “The philosophies learned at Costco have become our foundation at The Coup. We are a business filled with passionate people pushing for social change.”
While the ambitious project is encouraging, it’s important to note that USDA organic certification does not guarantee designated products be 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.
Despite these caveats, in a country where 1.9 million tons of likely toxic glyphosate have been sprayed on crops since 1974, livestock are pumped full of antibiotics, and the fast food industry is increasingly unpopular among many Americans, Organic Coup’s commitment reflects changing paradigms — both in commercial enterprise and among consumers. Indeed, former NBA star Ray Allen recently opened an organic fast-food chain in Miami, though it does not appear to be officially certified organic.
The organic food industry generated nearly $40 billion in 2014, and it continues to grow. Rather than demanding government action, the Costco-inspired venture is passing responsibility to consumers in a gratifying way. In fact, they argue their customers “are changing the status quo by transforming the conventional and unsustainable food system through vision and action.”
“The simple act of buying a certified organic sandwich,” they say, “makes you an agent of change,” ultimately inviting consumers to join them in “peaceful protest.”
Considering that, despite Americans’ growing skepticism, fast food remains a formidable force in the United States, Organic Coup’s plans to disrupt and upend the industry may not just be timely, but vital.
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