A small group of entrepreneurs is making it easier for us to eat out organically, says Marged Richards

Ten years ago the public tended to look at the organic eater as something of a sandal-wearing intellectual. Then came the food scares. BSE, E-coli, CJD, salmonella, GM crops, all fuelling existing concerns about industrialised farming, long foodchains, pesticides, additives and colourings. Suddenly sceptics began to wonder whether there was something in this organic business after all.

Ten years ago the public tended to look at the organic eater as something of a sandal-wearing intellectual. Then came the food scares. BSE, E-coli, CJD, salmonella, GM crops, all fuelling existing concerns about industrialised farming, long foodchains, pesticides, additives and colourings. Suddenly sceptics began to wonder whether there was something in this organic business after all.

Today, the UK's organic food industry is estimated to be worth an annual £1bn. The public's growing awareness of the importance of diet has led to Sainsbury's alone turning over £4.7m a week in its organic lines. What's more, thanks to a handful of entrepreneurial visionaries with a genuine belief in the movement, there are now 34 fully certified organic restaurants, cafés, even a nursery, meaning it is increasingly possible to eat out organically.

Not all organic entrepreneurs met with instant success, however. One of those in the vanguard was Ivan Taylor, chief executive of Pizza Organic (an offshoot of Pizza Piazza) which launched in 1999 with seven experimental branches. When four sites closed the following year, it was not because of the higher prices they charged - the so-called organic premium - but because of the instability of the supply and the difficulty in keeping a menu together. Then as the organic market strengthened, so did the mechanics of supply and demand.

"Over the last few years the major supermarkets have professionalised the delivery and supply side - suddenly the multi-temperature delivery services can deliver organic produce to us," says Taylor. "This enabled us to jump back in. We now have 10 restaurants. There is no doubt that there is a market. It's a question of can you pitch to it, and can you honour your menu?"

It isn't only the professional restaurateurs that are moving in. Leaving behind careers in advertising and film, Will Sarne (a lifelong fan of fast food) and his wife Samantha (a long-term health obsessive), are typical of a new breed of organic eaters. Frustrated at having nowhere to eat out organically with their 16-month-old son, Saul, the couple are opening their own organic fast food restaurant in West London next month. No microwaves, no heat lamps, no freezers: Babes'n'Burgers will serve chips and burgers made with beef from a Blonde Aquitaine and Aberdeen Angus cross herd nurtured on the 790 organic acres of Wycombe Manor Farm, near Hastings. "We didn't start with 'Here's a good business idea, let's make some money out of it'. We want to change people's views, to make a difference," says Will Sarne.

Despite the concern about what we eat, the majority of consumers seem to retain doubts about organic food. Is it healthier? Is it really tastier? Is the extra cost justified? These are all issues that new organic restaurants have to deal with.

One enterprise that's convinced the answer is "yes" to all the above is the Duke of Cambridge in Islington, opened in 1999 by self-confessed sandal-wearers Geetie Singh and Esther Boulton as the world's first totally organic gastropub - but not advertised as such. With the first year's profits, they opened a second organic pub, The Crown in East London. Each now serves 250-350 covers a day and they generate a joint annual turnover of £2.5m. Singh is full of praise for the Soil Association, whose accreditation she sees as essential to retaining the punters' trust by ensuring that not just any restaurant can claim to be organic. The Soil Association symbol ensures organic authenticity and that the premises have been subjected to an annual inspection and unscheduled spot checks.

Although not the sole certifying body in the UK, the Soil Association is the largest, currently accrediting more than 4,000 producer and processor operations. Applying for certification for an entire operation (you can choose to seek certification of an individual dish or range of organic ingredients if you prefer) is a precise and detailed process involving the full traceability of organic ingredients back to the primary producer.

The shift towards eating-out organically is creating outlets that take a pride in this traceability. Bangors House, a Victorian tearoom in Cornwall, is the UK's only Bed and Organic Breakfast, a special if rather inelegant title created to distinguish it from organic B&Bs, a term which simply means accommodation on an organic farm.

Today in many of our smaller towns and villages it is possible to stop outside a butcher's and read on a blackboard which local farm that week's beef is coming from - information found in few supermarkets.

Cornwall's Eden Project says 80 per cent of the fresh food in its restaurants is bought locally - sausages from Tywardreath, clotted cream from Trewithen, fish from Newlyn, smoked fish from Charlestown and goats cheese from Rhoddas. According to Clare Gardner, Eden's organic development officer: "Just as the biomes contain plant exhibits to tell stories, so our restaurants are theatres where menus, message boards and even cups have a message. We say that your wallet is your weapon, and that if people have enough information they have the power to effect enormous change in trade, production, and ultimately the future of the planet."

There are many catering outlets in the process of seeking certification from the Soil Association. Applications have doubled in the last year. Ikea, for example, plans to introduce organic children's meals. "The aim is to offer an entire organic dish once all our 12 stores have been granted certification," says Ikea's food services country manager, Tony Bousher.

Skye Gyngell, resident chef at the Petersham Nurseries Café in Richmond, and a Vogue consultant food editor, sees the shift in the public's attitude to food as a world trend. "We're much more self-nurturing than we used to be. Eating fresh, healthy food is a key part of taking care of ourselves physically and spiritually. Organic is the biggest thing that's happened in food over that last 10 years."

Ivan Taylor sees the trend propelled by women, citing the 50/50 women to men ratio he serves in his 12 non-organic restaurants to the 65/35 split in Pizza Organic. "At pregnancy age, women start to really care about what they're eating. I think that's the edge in organic," he says, seeing room for a Pizza Organic in every British town and city.

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