The Daily Californian Online

In Downturn, Slow Foods Movement Sees Steady Growth

By Denise Poon
Contributing Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Category: News > City > City Government

Scott Hansen (left) inspects cakes as David Morawski looks on at the Elmwood Cafe, a restaurant adhering to the Slow Food philosophy.

Cheese Board Pizza Collective is just one of many restaurants in Berkeley committed to local and organic ingredients, but, amid the economic downturn, the restaurant must cater to its customers' demands.

For instance, customers always expect to see tomatoes on pizzas regardless of season or price. In order to meet demand, the produce must be imported-even if it is not organic, said Elizabeth Medina, worker and owner.

"We have not always tried to go the organic route," Medina said. "It's not always feasible. We really try not to raise prices. I would say that's one of the reasons why we've maintained such a good steady business."

Cheese Board, along with other Berkeley restaurants, follows a philosophy that stems largely from the Slow Food movement, which has thrived despite the poor economic climate by increasing awareness of what it describes as the importance of buying local.

Michael Pearce, co-owner of the Elmwood Cafe in South Berkeley, said that though it is the "worst economic time in our lifetime," he believes the new restaurant's local-minded business model is viable.

"I've found that as long as you let people know why the food costs more, people respond to that," he said. "We've only been open for a month, and we've had a really good response."

Rather than struggling in this economy, local food businesses are becoming more competitive with larger chains and franchises, said Michael Shuman, research director for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, a network of locally owned independent businesses across North America.

"Slow Food, while many of its people embrace it as a lifestyle and social choice ... it really in the end is about economic development," he said.

Keeping businesses local, Shuman said, has a "multiplier effect," meaning the more times a dollar is spent within a defined geographic area, the more income and wealth it produces. When input travels shorter distances, he added, it also makes for a smaller carbon footprint.

Local farmers' markets, for example, leave this kind of impact.

"The farmers' market is really in a lot of ways the epitome of what Slow Food is talking about," said Ben Feldman, program manager for the market at the Ecology Center. "Its principles come from that sort of shopping experience, just the idea that you're buying your ingredients from the people that make them."

Berkeley has long attracted restaurants aligned with the Slow Food philosophy, said Michael Caplan, the city's economic development manager.

"A lot of businesses are moving towards locally sourced quality ingredients," Caplan said. "You see that more and more in businesses, in restaurants that are opening in Berkeley."

Part of this movement stems from greater consumer concern about where their food comes from, he added.

Despite the increased expenses of using organic and locally produced ingredients, Slow Food USA-an organization dedicated to promoting local food traditions-has seen its membership grow. Following a outreach campaign last September and October, 8,000 new members joined, and the national chapter now totals about 28,000, according to Slow Food USA officials.

The Berkeley chapter also saw an increase during the campaign and is now at a peak membership of about 500, according to Anna Hillgruber Smith Clark, the chair of the Berkeley chapter and the Slow Food Bay Area regional governor. Though membership is geared toward individuals, members who are committed to supporting values like Slow Food may grow their businesses around such a philosophy.

"It's all part of core values," she said. "It's a matter of finding a way to say 'we align with those things as a company.'"

Steve Sullivan, co-owner of Acme Bread Company, said he and his wife, who is also a co-owner of the company, operate under the Slow Food movement's philosophy. According to Sullivan, though this philosophy is more expensive, the customer is getting the product's maximum value.

"You pay the people who are doing the work and supporting the community," he said. "It is worth more and that is why it costs more."

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