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Organic and Asian: Bucking the Restaurant Stereotype

By Angela Bao

Jul. 14, 2016
Saifon Plewtong founder of True Seasons restaurant in organic vegetable garden for Reach Further
Saifon Plewtong founder of True Seasons restaurant in organic vegetable garden

Organic Asian restaurants and how Asian-Americans are influencing mainstream food culture

California has the largest Asian population in the United States, so it is not surprising there is no shortage of Asian restaurants there. However, the majority of these restaurants don’t serve organic food. That may be changing, since the Nielsen Co. says that Asian-Americans are 31 percent more likely to eat organic. Despite the stiff competition from more traditional Asian restaurants serving inexpensive food, a growing crop of restaurants is proving that you can be successful, organic and Asian.

As the U.S. population becomes more health-conscious and wary of conventional farming methods, more and more people are turning to the perceived safety of organic food. The Organic Trade Association reports that in 2015 the industry exceeded $43 billion in sales of organic products, a 10.8 percent increase from 2014. Although organic foods started as a niche market, with Whole Foods Market Inc. paving the way, it has since become widely available, with places like WalMart and Costco Wholesale Corp. contributing greatly to yearly sales.

The changing landscape of Asian restaurants

Jil Cam opened her first restaurant, Green Zone, in San Gabriel Valley in 2006, years before the organic movement started to gain traction. The idea came to Cam in the usual way: noticing a lack of something that she and her friends wanted, namely healthy, clean Asian food. “Ten years ago, it was really challenging for my family and my group of friends to go out and eat,” says Cam. “We’re conscious of being healthy … we [were] young moms; we wanted to eat salads and things that are healthy … but we also had friends who wanted to eat Asian food, and Asian food at that time, and right now, was saturated with MSG.” Thus, Green Zone was born. Cam has since expanded the original San Gabriel Valley location, opened another Green Zone in Old Pasadena, and plans to open another, breakfast-centric location in Temple City sometime this year.

Saifon Plewtong went a step further when opening her hot pot restaurant, True Seasons Organic Kitchen, in Anaheim. Although most places find it incredibly difficult to use all-organic ingredients, Plewtong considers it a necessary part of her identity. Raised on a farm in Thailand and accustomed to eating fresh, homegrown fruits and vegetables, Plewtong believes that using organic ingredients is the best way to recapture those roots. “I think when you look back to traditional Asian cooking, it’s healthy,” Plewtong says. “It’s just what people add to the food that it becomes unhealthy.” She’s a stickler for clean, organic eating, and that message certainly seems to click with True Seasons’ customers. According to Plewtong, her customers come to True Seasons specifically because they prefer the cleaner, all-organic food, even though there are more convenient, nonorganic Asian restaurants closer to where they live.

Keeping the costs down

Part of Green Zone’s and True Seasons’ success comes from the fact that, although they are both organic restaurants, they have managed to keep prices reasonably low. Everything on Green Zone’s menu is under $20, and a hotpot lunch at True Seasons runs from $14-$30 for a small eight-piece order. With the number of cheap Asian restaurants they must compete against, low prices are practically a necessity if both restaurants want to stay in business — and also an added appeal for people who want to eat healthy but don’t want to spend too much.

According to Cam, testing is integral to keeping costs — and therefore prices — low. Green Zone started off as a small, 800-square-foot space, which meant Cam and her husband not only could manage it with little help, but also that they could try out dishes on a much smaller scale. “I controlled my food purchases, buying small,” says Cam. “In the beginning, I was just testing to see if this organic Asian concept would work … I didn’t want to buy too much and then just have it go to waste.”

Plewtong at True Seasons follows a similar logic. True to her restaurant’s name, Plewtong only purchases produce that is in season. This eliminates unnecessary costs and forms a long-lasting relationship with her suppliers. “I know my farmers,” says Plewtong. “I visited their farms before I opened True Seasons… They know I need to make a profit, but also that I want to support them. We came up with a reasonable price so we’re not hurting ourselves by buying from them, and they aren’t losing money by selling to us.”

How Asian-Americans are effecting change

While there are currently only a handful of organic Asian restaurants, it seems likely that number will increase as the organic movement continues to grow — and Asian-Americans could be the catalyst for that change. In a 2015 report, Nielsen states that Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in the United States, and have a buying power that is expected to increase from $770 billion to $1 trillion by 2018. Nielsen also notes that the younger Asian-American generation (those 18 years of age and younger) is “ambicultural” — they have strong ties to both their ethnic heritage and to U.S. culture — and is becoming a powerful influence on mainstream culture.

Both Plewtong and Cam have noticed the growing availability of organic Asian produce and food products. Whenever Plewtong goes to farmers’ markets, she observes that Asian people make up the majority of the people there. “And it’s usually the Asian booths,” Plewtong adds, “the ones that sell Asian vegetables, that are the most packed.”

However, it doesn’t stop there: Cam says that many Asian food companies are also coming out with organic options. “There are a lot of things that are organic coming out,” Cam states. “Even some typical Asian manufacturers like Lee Kum Kee are starting to make organic soy sauce … and you can always find local people selling things like organic rice.”

Considering that the growth of organics coincides with the growth of the Asian-American population, it’s not surprising that the two overlap. Cam notes that part of her success lies in the appeal of Green Zone to Asian-Americans who are both health-conscious and want a taste of home. “I think there’s definitely a lot of people… who don’t want to give up their culture,” says Cam. “You can imagine, they are like, ‘I want to eat organic, I want to eat healthy,’ but then they have to eat at places like Tender Greens. Now they can have all those things they grew up eating and loving, and still feel good about it.”

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