Category Archives: Fast Food

O’Donalds: The Organic McDonald’s

The following post is a tribute to my nine year old son.

On Father’s Day this year he gave me his plan for a new “fast food” chain to replace McDonald’s.  Maybe living in the same house with a dad that has just a drop of sustainable food on his mind inspired him, but I think it mostly had to do with the creative force that is childhood.

Here is his plan in its entirety:

O’donalds – the organic Mcdonalds

The first O’donalds would open in Burlington, Vermont. It would use only local and organic food, and would not use high fructose corn syrup. The items on the menu would come and go depending on the season. It would only acept food from local farmers within 100 miles. It would only purchase cheese from companies that didn’t use RBGH. It would have soups and salads year round, and sandwiches too. It would sell soda’s that did not contain high fructose corn syrup. Organic drinks replace Coke’s, and Dr.Pepper. Organic root beer would be sold.

Our restaurants will open in cities, such as New York City and Boston. Food will not be shipped from across the country, or will it be frozen and then reheated.

Our key word is organic. We will have panini sandwiches that are made out of homemade bread and pesto. Our soups and pastas will be delicious. We will have chocolate-chip, oatmeal and peanut butter cookies for dessert.

Now lets look at the building design. It would be a medium-sized building, with glass windows and booths with neon green seats and white tables. A shiny chandiler would be on the ceiling. Also, you could eat outside!

The pesto would be a yummy lemon balm pesto, and O’Donalds would have a huge garden within a 100 mile radius. We would have sundaes with organic root beer, homemade vanilla ice cream with a bit of Vermont whipped cream. Yum.

Whether its my son or daughters (have three), or yours, we should be engaging them in discussions about where our food comes from, as well as how it is grown, processed and sold. When time (and patience) permits, sit down to find a yummy recipe to make for dinner, take them shopping and talk about making choices (e.g., conventional or organic produce), and work together preparing and cooking meals.

This has been the standard practice in our home since we had our first child over 13 years ago. Clearly, the things we talk about, the things we value, and the actions we take are sinking in.

Rob Smart is a food entrepreneur focusing on regional food systems and consumer retail experiences. He blogs on alternative food systems at Every Kitchen Table and Civil Eats (guest blogger), and micro-blogs on Twitter as Jambutter.

Disney Garden: A Figment of Our Imagination

Living in central Vermont, with its population of less than 100,000 people spread among many small towns, has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, until this weekend, I had never heard of Imagination Farms, the company selected by The Walt Disney Company to market the Disney Garden brand of fresh produce (hat tip to Ethicurean).

It got me thinking about why a massive worldwide entertainment company like Disney would get into a line of business like produce. After all, it’s really difficult to mark up produce, especially as you add companies between farms and consumers, and even harder when one of those companies is one of the world’s premium brands. I decided to dig a little deeper.

I found very little. Disney makes no mention of Disney Garden or Imagination Farms in its 2008 SEC 10-K filing, and Imagination Farms hasn’t had a press release since mid 2008. So, I pieced together what I was able to find in hopes of drawing an intelligent conclusion regarding Disney’s strategy.  Here are some highlights of what I was able to uncover:

  • Disney is the #1 family lifestyle brand, #1 brand in entertainment, #1 brand for families with children under 12, and #7 overall brand in terms of its value, which is calculated to be worth over $26 billion dollars.
  • Consumer Products has been Disney’s fastest growing business segment for the last two years: 26% growth in ’08 (v. 7% overall) and 9% in ’09 (v. 5% overall). Revenue in 2008 was $2,875 million, led by Hannah Montana and High School Musical brands, and accounted for less than 8% of total revenues.
  • Consumer Products gross margins were approximately 25%, second to Disney’s Media Networks (30%), and substantially higher than Parks & Resorts (16%) and Studio Entertainment (15%).
  • Imagination Farms (I-Farms) buys and packages organic and conventional grown fruits and vegetables from farms and co-packers in North and South America. A co-packer is a company that manufactures and packages foods for other companies to market and distribute. Co-packers work under contract with the hiring company to manufacture food as though the products were manufactured directly by the hiring company.
  • Disney Garden packaging encourages kids to visit the I-Farms web site, where they are asked to provide demographic and eating information, download collections pages for collecting stickers on fruits and vegetables, and engage in Disney-branded activities, among other things.
  • According to I-Farms, “Children age 4 to 12 are definitely consumers and influence over $30 billion dollars in consumer spending…of which food and beverage is the number one category.”
  • Packaged Facts reports that U.S. sales of licensed food and beverage products aimed at kids in the 3 to 11 age range rose by 10% in 2006, to $746 million (source).
  • Disney had a 10-year exclusive pact with McDonald’s — valued at $2 to $3 billion in promotional value and royalties — that expired in 2006.  At the time, executives at both companies indicated they will continue working together on a project-by-project basis.

From a purely business perspective, Disney may be trying to back fill its Happy Meal revenue stream.  But what seems more plausible is that Disney Garden is mostly about its public relations value in promoting Disney entertainment properties, while countering years of being associated with fast food. After all, Disney is not branding highly-processed foods, which would provide them with better margins than produce. What that leaves is a product line that will be hard pressed to match Disney’s Consumer Products gross margins (25%).

It also gives Disney thousands of mini billboards in 18 of the top 20 mass and grocery retailers across America where it can effectively promote Disney’s more valuable business segments, especially its characters, films and TV shows.

Is this a smart business strategy? Sure. Is it good for specialty crop farmers? Not in my opinion, since it will likely take shelf space away from sustainable, organic and local produce in conventional food retailers, which means less sales and profits for small to medium sized farms. It also keeps farmers in the background, as I-Farms and Disney Garden dominate packaging, displays, and associated web properties. Which brings up an interesting point.  There is no Disney Garden. Like many of Disney’s characters, it only lives in our imagination.

What we need to see more of is brand credit going to the real heroes (not Disney characters) that work hard day in and day out to sustainably grow fruits and vegetables for our enjoyment. Of course, I’m talking about farmers.  One way we might accomplish this is by having a handful of the leading agents representing chefs, who have seen their stock rise substantially over the last decade, take on farmers as clients.  Who knows, maybe Disney will end up creating a family-friendly version of Jerry Maquire (1997 Best Picture award nominee) that replaces professional athletes with world-class organic farmers.

Perhaps I’m dreaming, but if there is one thing Disney has taught me over the years, it’s that dreams can come true.


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7 More Innovative Sustainable Food Ventures

After a great response to my “10 Innovative Sustainable Food Retailers” post nearly three weeks ago, and a number of suggestions of people, organizations and companies doing equally important work, I am following up with seven more role-model ventures that deserve attention.

Claire’s Restaurant (Hardwick, VT)

Claire’s was launched in May 2008 by four partners with the help of numerous investments from the Hardwick and surrounding communities, in what is best described as a community supported restaurant (CSR). Around 50 community members put in $1,000 each in return for discounted meals they will receive over four years. What they invested in was a restaurant truly committed to local and sustainable food, which is evidenced by the restaurant purchasing 79% of its food from farms in the Northeast corner of Vermont through its first winter, a significant feat given Claire’s location in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The innovative and seasonal menu, which quickly adapts to what’s available, has won the hearts and stomachs of those lucky enough to have eaten at Claire’s. For more, check out a great interview with Chef Steven Obronovich on Zachary Cohen’s Farm to Table blog.

Jasper Hill Farm (Greensboro, VT)

Just down the road from Claire’s Restaurant, you will find Jasper Hill Farm, a small family farm making arguably one of the best blue cheeses on the planet – Bayley Hazen Blue. They took over the farm in 1998 and settled on making farmstead cheese as the most viable business model. Good thing! After five years of study and preparation they purchased 15 Ayrshire heifers in July 2002 and got to making cheese. What sets Jasper Hill apart as a sustainable food venture is the $3.2-million cheese cave it built to finish its cheeses, as well as those of other cheesemakers, including Cabot Creamery’s award-winning Clothbound Cheddar. Jasper Hill offers local dairy farms a turnkey solution for aging that will add considerable value to those producer’s end product. Everyone wins. By making it easier and more cost effective for dairy farms making high-quality cheese, Jasper Hill hopes to help more farms come online and/or make a good living around value-added products.  Blur your eyes and imagine similar cheese caves and services throughout New England and beyond. Yum!

The Farmer’s Kitchen (Hollywood, CA)

This soon-to-be-opened community kitchen is serving as an extension of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, and will offer commercial teaching, processing, and retail kitchen for the sale of prepared foods, value-added products, and farm-fresh produce.  The purpose behind this sustainable food venture is to link California’s small farmers with the urban (Los Angeles) population by extending the presence of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market through the entire week.  Given the need of fresh produce and healthy meals in urban areas, especially lower income sections, the potential of this model in other large cities is exciting.  Income from the Farmer’s Kitchen will support nutrition education programs and provide job training in food preparation for Hollywood’s low-income residents.

Green Go Food (Seattle, WA)

Along similar lines as The Farmer’s Kitchen, but on a smaller scale and slightly different angle, Green Go started out in April 2008 working with the Neighborhood Farmers Markets, a community-based organization developed in response to growing popularity of farmers markets in the Seattle area. What Green Go does is utilize food from “our local farm heroes” to prepare and serve healthy fast food at farmers markets. Very cool, especially since it provides tasty proof that utilizing local produce can yield great results. Their goal is to acquire a kitchen and storefront, with a longer term vision of a “Taco Truck style” venue (need to find out more about this; please let me know if you have more information). By creating community “hot spots” for local, sustainable foods, they are increasing retail access to sustainable food in the Seattle region.  Next step?  How about mobile sustainable food venues rolling through town like yesteryear’s ice cream truck?

Bushel & Peck’s Local Market (Beloit, WI)

The first sentence on their web site states, “Experience grocery shopping like it used to be!”  That’s a great start, so I dug deeper.  By purchasing local, certified organic and fair trade foods from Bushel & Peck, they are helping you help support farmers and processors that have chosen sustainable agriculture as their approach.  It is so great to see such innovations in the retail experience that consumers in Beloit, Wisconsin are offered in this significantly smaller than average grocer (6000 square feet with full kitchen and old fashioned lunch counter).  What gives this new venture even more credibility is the fact that its founders, Rich Horbaczewski and Jackie Gennett, are also farmers that practice what they preach.

Happy Girl Kitchen (Watsonville, CA)

This find is thanks to Todd Gonzales (a.k.a., Newlandarcher on Twitter), a UC Berkeley student working on agriculture and food systems.  This is his descprition.  Todd & Jordan Champagne, who cut their teeth at Fully Belly Farms, realized their farmer neighbors needed an outlet for what they were producing. The most common complaint among farmers with whom I work: inadequate & insufficient retail outlets/wholesalers for their yields.  The solution: the revival of the dying art of food preservation. But HGK has taken its efforts further by initiating a series of entertaining workshops to teach people how to pickle, can, and ferment. They are using their existing channels (farmers’ markets) to promote the workshops and empowering people to engage with their food. Thanks, Todd.  On a related note, please check out Three Stone Kitchen, a community supported kitchen in Berkeley that was in the original “10 Innovative Sustainable Food Retailers” list.

Lost Arts Kitchen (Portland, OR)

Last, but not least, is Portland’s Lost Arts Kitchen.  While this one-woman show is significantly limited in the impact it can have today, Chris Musser is the real deal and offers a breadth and depth of perspective that we can all learn from.  Read more in my April 22 post.


As always, I encourage everyone to comment on any of these venture, and, more important, to recognize those people, organizations and companies that I have missed.  It is my belief that the more we raise these innovators up and learn from there efforts, the faster we will develop an alternative food system capable of making a real difference in sustainable food.

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