Interview with Michael Johnson of Organic To Go: A Bright Spot in the World of Lunch & Catering

Posted on 07. Nov, 2009 by in Business & Policy, Entrepreneurship, Events, Interviews

OTG Caprese SaladMichael Johnson has been described as a true “foodie” whose favorite sport is wining and dining. He has over 20 years of experience making delicious food, and is now a vice president. Organic To Go, an innovative company that provides fast, healthy, scrumptious lunches on both coasts, as well as catering services. In this interview we discussed his passion for sustainable food, his ideas for how to easily incorporate local, organic ingredients into your daily life, and the ingredients he’s excited about now.  Lucky for all you Opportunity Green attendees, he is one of the masters that will be orchestrating a healthy, organic feast for the event!

OG: What’s the story behind Organic To Go? How did you get involved?

Michael: OTG was founded by a group of men and women who wanted to be able to find ‘clean’ food where they worked. They found that when looking for lunch for a business meeting or just leaving their office that their choices were really limited if they were looking for good organic and natural fare, so that’s how the concept was born.  I became involved when the company that I was working for was acquired by Organic To Go. We had been steering towards a more ‘natural’ concept, so this just escalated my dive into the organic world.

OG: What is your strategy for continuing to meet your customer’s needs?

Michael: Our brands are evolving in many positive ways. We’ve recently brought in a number of chefs who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and are really re-focusing our brands around food: awesome flavor profiles with high quality organic and natural ingredients. Our purchasing department is really focused on working locally wherever we can to support local sustainable farms and producers.

OG: Why is it so important to you to run the business in a sustainable way? What are some examples of that?

Michael: Operating sustainably is part of our core values–it’s simply part of who we are.  Foodservice in general has a pretty massive carbon footprint but there have been some great strides in the past few years to help reduce that impact. We’re nowhere near where we want to be but we’re working hard each day to continue to make impact. Obviously we’re purchasing organically and locally where we can, our packaging is changing as the industry changes, using products like PLA containers (made from corn resin…and compostable), biodegradeable flatware, recycled paper products, and more earth friendly materials in our cafes and catering. Our new store build outs are focused around using sustainable materials and we’re changing out lighting to blend LEDs into our cafes to reduce electricity usage as well.

OG: What is your opinion on the organic vs. local debate? If you can’t have the best of both worlds, is it better to buy conventionally grown food from around the corner or get the organic stuff from 2000 miles away?

Michael: We are organic wherever possible, and where it makes sense. Ultimately the reality is that our customers will still want tomatoes in Washington DC in the middle of winter, and that’s tough to maintain locally. Promoting and supporting local sustainable vendors and farmers is again inherent in our culture, and we work toward that goal at each of our Culinary Centers, but if we cannot find what we need locally we will source from further away.  In terms of the debate, our job is to serve our customers according to our values and our promises to them, and do it in the most sustainable way possible. Sometimes that works out to be local and sometimes it does not.

OG: What’s on the menu for the OG conference this weekend?

Michael: We will be feeding folks this weekend!  (It is our favorite thing to do.) At the Confluence of Influence, Chef Kenley and Chef Colt will be preparing a selection of sustainable seafood dishes like a Kona Kampachi Sashimi, and Alaskan Spot Prawn Escebeche.  On Saturday there will be lunches including a Roast Turkey and Brie Sandwich with Granny smith apples, and a cranberry orange compote, a crazy 12 vegetable salad with roasted corn and vegetables, and my favorite will be our Al Fresca, a roasted portabello sandwich with fresh mozzarella, beefsteak tomatoes, fresh basil and balsamic on Foccacia.

OG: Mm, that last one does sound good. What are your favorite foods and ingredients right now?

Michael: I’m really into (you’re going to laugh) heirloom potatoes right now. My local farmers market has had some really cool ones over the past couple of weeks and I’ve been making all kinds of stuff at home, from simple mash to some wacky colorful dauphinoise, those and probably celery root are my favorites at the moment.

OG: I love celery root! Can you give some examples of ways to incorporate or support organic farming into your life and diet?

Michael: I think the easiest and most substantial way to make an impact is to explore your local farmers markets. You’re supporting local, you’ll find organic, you’ll be forced into thinking seasonally, and there’s nothing like meeting the folks growing your food. It makes for a much greater connection to eating. Go with an open mind and get creative–you’ll be surprised what you find. And ask the farmers what they like to do with some of their food, you’ll get awesome ideas!

OG: I had a really great experience talking with Julie Malcomson recently. She was very creative in the way she approached my requests, coming up with ideas for making food look like eyeballs and guts for a Halloween party. Do you see fun and creativity as an integral part of the business at Organic To Go?

Michael: I think any facet of the food industry has to involve creativity, and once you’ve introduced passion and fun it translates into everything from the presentation to how it tastes.

OG: Why are you excited to partner with Opportunity Green?

Michael: OG provides us a venue to support awareness and to increase our impact universally. If you are a large corporation with a big campus or even a small office and you have sustainability charters in place that you want to live up to, we can help partner with you to realize those goals. Awareness drives education, education drives action, action gets results. We want to be part of the solution.

OG: What are the challenges and opportunities ahead in the business of organic food? What do you hope to achieve in the future?

I think the biggest challenge and opportunity in one are to forge forward continuing to grow and do more and do better around organic and sustainable. As the movement grows, the impact grows and it will become more of the norm rather than a specialized segment.  That’s what I hope to achieve: normalization of actionable sustainability.

OG: Thanks Michael! I’m looking forward to trying our OTG’s food that is “as good as it tastes!”

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One Response to “Interview with Michael Johnson of Organic To Go: A Bright Spot in the World of Lunch & Catering”

  1. Mary

    09. Nov, 2009

    I got a chance to meet both Michael and Julie – they’re amazing! And so is their food, of course. Did you try those cupcakes?! Fantastic. :)

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