Published December 15, 2015
Volume 23, Number 12

Erica Welton, Founder of The Organic Coup, Brings a Costco

Mindset to Groundbreaking Fast Food Venture

By Jay Hipps

Travelers on London’s Underground are constantly reminded, via a recorded message, to “mind the gap.” It’s important to pay attention when one enters or leaves a train because there is a distance, small but potentially dangerous, between the train and the platform. Erica Welton, founder of The Organic Coup — the country’s first certified organic fast food restaurant — is familiar with the idea of watching out for gaps, but in her case she is looking to benefit from one: a gap in the marketplace.
Erica Welton“Over the last four years, I saw the sales (of organic foods) growing, I saw the shift happening. You could see articles in magazines and everyone was talking about it — the buzz was everywhere — and at the same time over the last 10 or 15 years it got to the point where probably 80 percent of the food and beverages in my home were organic,” she explains. “I was choosing to pack organic almonds in my purse when I was traveling, and I’d think about what kind of options I had out there. I found myself eating mostly at Chipotle, especially for stuff on the go.
“That was really the cleaner, healthy option, but it just seemed like there was a gap — the same gap that the big CPG (consumer product group) companies like General Mills and Kellogg’s and Quaker left because they didn’t have those organic options. You saw these little guys coming in to fill that need. People were looking for cleaner options and then companies like Annie’s, Food Should Taste Good, and Justin’s, all smaller companies that were doing either organic or non-GMO, came in and started filling that gap in the marketplace.”
Welton recognized what she and other busy moms were discovering: There were no good options for healthy fast food. “All of a sudden, this huge gap became very clear. I wanted a test and I wanted to try opening up my own certified organic fast food.”
Welton’s career didn’t start in the restaurant business. After a short stint at a Berkeley law firm after finishing college at San Francisco State, the El Sobrante native took a job at the Costco in Richmond while she pondered going to graduate school. “Every executive at Costco is promoted from within, so I was there for about two-and-a-half years and then transitioned to the retail buying office in Livermore,” she says. “It was exciting. I was new, I was fresh, I was hungry to learn the business. I had just come out of the operations side of the business and moved into the buying side of the business, and I loved learning about food. Growing up, I never had prosciutto or worked on prepared entrees, but I was the deli buyer for seven years and started becoming very passionate about imported cheeses and meats, about how animals were raised and all of the things that were happening with our food products.”
With her pregnancy and 2004 birth of her first child, her interest in food took on an additional dimension. “Suddenly, you want the best. What am I putting in my body? What am I feeding my child?,” she recalls. “For both of my babies, I made my own baby food — I made sure it was organic, I made sure that it was clean. Even in my career, where we could add cleaner, healthier options — there were lots of buyers in Costco who were pushing for that — that became a passion of mine.”
At the same time, her career path at the international retailer was providing an education in itself. “In my opinion, Costco is the best retailer in the world, and from the employee side, the member side, I learned everything there,” she says. “From buying to people, all of our base is from Costco. I’m forever grateful.”
She left Costco in January to lead a revolution. The first location of The Organic Coup opened last month in Hacienda and has received rave reviews. The restaurant’s streamlined menu features organic fried chicken served three ways — in a sandwich, in a wrap, or atop a bed of organic shredded vegetables — as well as an organic popcorn side and organic sodas. Everything on the menu, including sandwich buns, condiments, and even the oil in which the chicken is fried, is organic.
Aside from being organic, Welton has one additional criteria for everything on the menu. “It also has to be great,” she says. “You’re not going to force yourself to continue to eat something because it isn’t amazing! So for us here, we wanted to make a great chicken sandwich where the bonus is that it’s organic and it’s clean. We’re passionate about that, but we’re not going to serve stuff that isn’t amazing.”
Great care has gone into selecting suppliers and ingredients. The chicken itself comes from Mary’s Free Range Chicken in Fresno, a family farm which has received kudos for its approach to animal welfare as well as the quality and flavor of its birds. “We chose Mary’s not only because they’re organic and here in California but because chicken that’s air chilled versus going into a water bath saves tens of thousands of gallons of water every day, and also makes it tastier.”
Welton’s approach extends to Organic Coup employees as well. “The other thing that we’re very proud of, because of our Costco background, is that we’re investing in our people, too. The food isn’t the only thing that’s disrupting the fast-food category: Our starting wage is $14 per hour,” she says. “It kind of goes back to that whole organic and sustainable model. It’s not just with food and suppliers, it’s with our people, too. They’re everything to us.”
Now that the first location is open, the company has an ambitious expansion plan. “Starting right after the first of the year, we’re looking to open 25 locations in the next 14 months,” Welton says. “We’re very focused on Northern California. We would love to be everywhere eventually, but right now we’re just keeping our heads down and working on the business, dialing it in to make it a great experience both on the food side and the customer service side.”
Despite the groundbreaking nature of her own business, Welton is keenly aware that she benefits from her predecessors in a decades-old movement, and is grateful for it. “Organic has been growing and growing — it’s not what it was from the 60’s to the 70’s to the 80’s to the 90’s, but there’s a lot of people who built this movement,” she says. “We thank the food movement community, thank you for all your hard work because no one ever thought organic fast food would be here, and it would never be here without all of their pioneering efforts.”
For additional information on The Organic Coup, visit their web site at theorganiccoup.com or stop by the restaurant at 4825 Hopyard Rd. from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.


Also in this issue...