By: Lisa DeJong
Restaurant menus are always subject to change, but six months after opening TownHall, the hot new place in Ohio City, the owners began an unprecedented overhaul.
Every dish would be transformed.
Low sales? Chef's whim? Lack of supply?
No, no, no. The place is booming, and the chef is still serving the same popular recipes.
What's gone, it seems, are ingredients containing GMOs or genetically modified organisms. Grown from gene-spliced seeds, they dominate today's food supply. They also are at the center of ongoing, polarized arguments about their safety.
On the one hand, many of the largest scientific organizations say GMOs are safe and have many benefits to offer.
On the other, there are counter-arguments and distrust. Many consumer and grassroots groups - along with some science groups -- worry that research is incomplete, especially about the unintended and unlabeled transfer of allergens and other illness triggers.
Across the globe, calls for more study and regulation have risen from both sides.
For now, it's an issue with no apparent resolution.
Bobby George decided TownHall's GMOs would have to go.
Check out the upper right-hand corner of the menu today, and it says "100 percent non-GMO food."
"We can make anything any other restaurant makes, it's just a non-GMO version," says operations director Alex DiIorio.
Owner George puts it another way.
"GMOs are poison," he said.
Move around the rambling two-part dining room and you still can find customers unaware of the raging mission going on.
Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt, speaking as his cream-topped brownie arrived, said he's learning to eat better from team chefs and nutritionists. He's in favor of healthy food and tries for balance. But he said he goes to TownHall because the food is tasty, to see the cross-section of Clevelanders, and to have a good time.
A duo of well dressed, fortysomething women said the non-GMO idea is a good thing, but struggled to define it.
"It's not that nutritious," said one, who declined to be named.
But 25-year-old Claire Cushing, in from Columbus to see friends, said she's in tune with the mission.
"I think all the enhancements going on with our food today are causing a lot of our health problems," she said. "It's nice to see that a local company cares about these things."
George would be pleased.
"For every person who argues with me about GMOs, I have 100 customers who say 'Thank you,'" he said.
"This is the right thing. I'll debate anyone on the subject . . . GMOs should not be tested on humans. This is going to be the biggest mistake America allowed to happen. We're going to be apologizing for it in the future, the same way we did with Agent Orange."
George is among the first wave of Cleveland food businesses to make the 100 percent GMO-free claim.
Nationally, Trader Joe's food stores say they have rid their private label products of GMO ingredients. Chipotle and Whole Foods have started labeling theirs. General Mills announced this year that the original version of Cheerios is now free of transgenics, after the company switched from beet to cane sugar. GMO labeling issues saw surprising defeats in California and Colorado, but victories in others, such as Vermont. None are supposed to take effect until next year.
Locally, Bon Appetit Management Co., which runs most of Case Western Reserve University's eateries and those at Cleveland Museum of Art, avoids GMOs as part of company policy. They also aim to buy 20 percent of their food from sources within a 150-mile radius of each restaurant.
But are they 100 percent GMO-free?
"I'd have to say honestly that if there's anything we serve that is not GMO-free, I didn't know about it," said Matt Jankowski, executive chef at the museum's Provenance. "One hundred percent is always our goal. There are just times when it's not a possibility in an emergency situation."
Jonathon Sawyer, owner of Noodlecat, Greenhouse Tavern and Trentina, said non-GMO corn and soybeans are hard to get. He's still looking for the latter for the Asian-inspired Noodlecat, but doesn't think corn is a possibility.
"In America, because of the way seeds here cross-pollinate, I think technically, there is no GMO-free corn," he said.
Ben Bebenroth agrees. The chef and owner of Spice Kitchen and Bar in Cleveland, and a farmer in the Cuyahoga Valley, is known as a frequent buyer of local foods.
He said it's almost impossible to get corn that is free of biotech treatment.
"In order to have GMO-free corn, you'd really have to invest in the food system," said Bebenroth. "You'd have to have GMO-free fields, harvesters and processing machines. It's almost like you'd have to have a GMO-free state because of winds and cross-pollination."
Bebenroth said he applauds TownHall's effort, but wonders why they still serve Pepsi, Coke and other drinks that contains GMOs.
"If you're really taking a hard stance, that's the biggest source of it," he said.
"It's very important that we have this discussion," he added. "But let's make sure it's an open discussion, not just wearing a badge of courage to the bank . . . Once again, I applaud the effort, but I'm seeing some green-washing. Saying they're 100 percent non-GMO kind of cheapens the effort the rest of us are making."
Is TownHall really 100 percent GMO-free, as the menu claims?
Bobby George says he believes it is. He's confident in the assurances of his suppliers, verified or not. But if they haven't all been third-party verified, isn't he taking a chance in making the 100 percent claim?
"I feel good about it, but I agree from a business perspective that this puts me under the spotlight. I don't know. Maybe I should let it go. I don't want it to be about me. I just want to spread the word that GMOs should be illegal in the U.S."
He still sells soft drinks containing GMOs because the bar currently helps pay for changes in the food line-up. He's exploring a non-GMO pop source.
When George was interviewed at his restaurant, he brought a small army with him. Around the table were operations director Alex DiIorio, assistant general manager Adam Heath, executive chef Erik Roth and marketing man Dan Inks.
Asked to talk about his definition of GMOs as poison, George answered on his own for a few minutes before pulling out a library of defense: The book, "The Unhealthy Truth," Robyn O'Brien's mother's-eye-view of a flawed food system, and two DVD movies, "GMO, OMG" and "Genetic Roulette."
George first got into the subject because of his own health. Coping with a liver ailment, he has been consulting with a naturopathic doctor, someone who considers food choices as part of treatment. The doctor suggested eating only non-GMO food.
"He ate most of his meals here," said Heath.
Today, those staff members say they are believers in naturopathy, too.
"A lot of it is just common sense," said Heath, who said he has enjoyed the books, the movies and occasional lectures.
TownHall servers are not required be anti-GMO, but they are expected to be articulate on the subject.
And if a customer should ask for a verification of a dish's non-GMO status, the crew can reach for a three-ring binder filled with statements from suppliers.
Each manager seemed to handle the binder with care, as if it was an in-house bible.
"I didn't think this would be as hard as it was," said DiIorio, leafing through. "At first, we started with the low-hanging fruit. Anything that's certified organic is easy, including produce.
"We caught some people lying to us," said George. "We needed some independent verification, so we went to GMO consultant in San Francisco." They also rely on certification from the NonGMO Project based in Bellingham, Wash.
A source for 700-1,400 pounds of chicken per week was among the hardest to find, until they latched onto one from California. George and his group have started discussions with local farmers to raise birds that receive no GMO feed, but that will take time.
"We're paying 60-70 percent more for these birds," said DiIorio. "It's a challenge. We need to develop our own infrastructure. We need to build henhouses. And we are talking with farmers about doing it."
"I know it's a risk economically," added George. "But in life, once you know the truth about something, whether it's religion, politics or business, it's hard to go against it. I studied this for months. I'm losing a couple hundred thousand (dollars) a year. But I believe it's gonna be good for business and people will respect us."
And more restaurants might follow.
"I hope they do," said DiIorio.
"It would drive prices down," said George.
Originally Publshed: Cleveland.com