Brisbane restaurateur John Kilroy – best known for his famous, trail-blazing Cha Cha Char steakhouse – is on a new crusade to bring Organic into the mainstream food service world.
The vehicle is his new restaurant venture, Char Organic, which sits beside his original steak restaurant in Brisbane’s ritzy Central Business District.
There was no shortage of people telling him he was mad to try to pitch a fully-certified Organic restaurant at high-end food service customers, however.
“Queensland Newspapers chief John Cowley told me that consumers went out to restaurants to be naughty (in dietary terms) – not to be good,” Mr Kilroy said.
“But the whole world is trying to be healthier in its approach to eating and food consumption. The customer interest in this end of the food chain, stretching from Organic through to Natural, grassfed or free-range, is now a lot larger than it was a few years ago.”
Over time, what has also happened is that the quality and consistency of all Organic foods produced around Australia has improved. More and more farmers and graziers are producing under Organic principles, and that means the huge seasonality, and sometimes complete absence, is no longer the problem it once was, he said.
“The consolidation of large-scale, well integrated and coordinated suppliers like The Organic Meat Company means we can have the confidence of stocking menu items that aren’t going to disappear tomorrow,” Mr Kilroy said.
This applied not only to red meat supplies, but also to other commodities like fruit and vegetables.
Mr Kilroy says for a long time many consumers and restaurant customers in Australia aligned the term, ‘organic’ with vegetarian foods only.
“Some of our customers are actually surprised to see that we offer meat protein options on the menu, and plenty of them,” he said. Two of five main courses offered recently in Char Organic were beef-based.
“In the past, Organic beef supply typically meant a pretty chewy product, which did not fit well with the ideals of the upper end of the restaurant trade. But we can now source good quality beef cuts on a daily basis, and it has given us the confidence to feature Organic beef quite heavily on the menu.”
The Organic Meat Company’s decision to adopt MSA grading – the only Organic beef supplier in Australia to do so – also provided a level of product performance not previously associated with the Organic market segment, Mr Kilroy said.
“There is no longer any excuse for compromise on the eating experience, just because as piece of beef is Certified Organic, and we have had zero negative feedback about the product performance since we opened Char Organic several months ago. We have the confidence that we can deliver to our discerning customers day-in, day-out, to a very high standard,” he said.
Mr Kilroy is keen to extend the organic story further with the introduction of menu references to regional or diet-based information, such as buffel grass or native sorghum finishing regimes, or region of origin. That identity might even carry through into table-talkers carrying some insight into the OMC program’s suppliers.
He said one of the biggest challenges for Char Organic was that that there was little precedent for a full Organic offer at the top end of the Australian restaurant market. In some ways, the restaurant has had to establish its own niche and clientele in the highly competitive Brisbane CBD restaurant market.
Staying true to Organic ideals
While there is no shortage of Australian restaurants offering some Organic options on their menus, what sets Char Organic apart – arguably making it unique in the upper-end Australian food service segment – is the depths the business goes to stay true to the Certified Organic ideal.
Not only is the restaurant, kitchen and preparation areas segregated and fully-certified under Organic principles, but every single item on the menu – right down to the herbs and the rock salt used to flavour dishes – comes from an certified source. Even the wine list is 100pc Organic in origin. There is infinitely more to this process than simply slapping a Certified Organic beef steak on a plate.
In a perverse regulation which applies elsewhere, Australian restaurants only need to stock 20 percent of two dishes being Certified Organic in origin, in order to call itself an ‘Organic’ restaurant.
So what sort of consumers patronise a restaurant like Char Organic? Are they diehard Organic food believers? Crossover types that eat organically only on occasion? Women?
On the occasion of Beef Central’s Friday lunchtime visit, there was a solitary table of women having a ‘ladies lunch.’ Every other table – and the place was full – was occupied by businessmen, mostly in groups of four to six.
“We’ve definitely picked up a younger age profile trend,” Mr Kilroy said. “At this time of year the men tend to go for the roast and vegetables type options, while the ladies might go for something lighter.”
With restaurant standard food products already expensive enough to secure from the wholesaler, did the added wholesale cost of buying Organic raw material eat into profit margins, or could Char Organic’s restaurant menu prices maintain the margin gap?
“We’ve tried to absorb that higher wholesale prices a little, but equally, buying wholesale in volume means that we do not pay the same premiums for Organic that might be seen in a retail supermarket shelf,” he said.
“The margin five years ago used to be at least 30 percent on many items, but it is now coming back to a much more manageable level, including beef.”
Mr Kilroy said there was already some very expensive conventional beef brands used in the upper end of food service, so the Certified Organic product sourced from OMC did not look out of context alongside it, in restaurant customers’ minds.
“People are happy to pay in these prices in a CBD environment, but it might be a little harder to maintain that in a smaller suburban restaurant setting,” he said. “It would be a lot more difficult to get a good organic product on a plate for $18 a meal, instead of $32-$35.”
One of Char Organic’s strategies is to use a much wider range of beef cuts than would typically been seen in an upper-end restaurant.
In addition to grilling cuts, the sous vide slow cooking method is widely used on cuts like brisket and oyster blade, breaking down connective tissue, and delivering a deliciously tender product.
Depending on the age of the animal at slaughter, the kitchen often finishes-off the sous vide items in a wood-fired oven, open flame grill, or flat grill.
In addition to raw material from The Organic Meat Company, the restaurant also features Certified Organic grassfed Wagyu from specialist supplier, Gundooee, out of Dunedoo in NSW.