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Small Business, Big Impact: Roti Mediterranean Grill Embraces Sustainable Meat

By Anthony Todd in Food on Aug 12, 2013 7:00PM


Maybe Roti Mediterranean Grill isn't a "small business" so much as a medium sized chain. But we've learned throughout this series that some of the businesses driving the market towards sustainable food aren't huge corporations, they're smaller chains with a few locations. Chicago-based Roti is attempting to elevate the quality of their fast-casual food by incorporating sustainable meat and organic products.

"As a brand, sustainability has become a signifier for quality," explained Peter Nolan, Chief Brand Officer at Roti. "You can't say freshest and finest anymore - those words are meaningless without more to back them up."

Roti is trying to back up their branding with changes at all of their 17 locations. The most significant change that customers will notice—Roti has switched to antibiotic free, vegetarian-fed Freebird chicken, raised on family farms in Pennsylvania, in all of their stores. This is the same chicken that high-end restaurants like Pecking Order are frying up. It's more expensive, but they think it's worth it.

"We went and toured their farms and processing plants, we visited the farmers," said Nolan. "Most commercial chicken operations, they inject antibiotics inside the eggs 'just in case'—it's not the right thing to do. These chickens are in open barns, they can peck on a lever whenever they want food and water. It's a really nice operation, the way that chicks should be raised. We converted to Freebird on April 22, Earth Day."

Chicken isn't the only thing that Roti is changing to improve the quality of its ingredients. They use unprocessed salt mined in Utah—it's still got all of the minerals in it, so it's actually blueish in color. They use 100 percent California olive oil, instead of a canola blend and they make their hummus with organic chickpeas.

Why bother? "We can taste the difference," insisted Nolan. "We do a lot of taste tests. Certainly on the olive oil—most people are using canola oil or a blend, and when you put that on your tongue and it's clear which is better. When it was put in cucumber tomato salad, we could taste the difference. Does the customer notice? It's hard to say, but the reality of a brand experience is that it's a lot of little things that are hard to tease out, but they all add up to something." When surveys were given to Roti customers, they consistently expressed interest in sustainable meat. "Our target customers are young professionals who have their head in the world. They care, and they want to know where their food comes from and will pay a little bit more to have food that is sourced appropriately."

Not all the meat at Roti is sustainably-raised. Their beef is conventional, but rather than trying to hide that, it's at the top of their agenda for 2014. They just have to find a reliable supplier who meets their standards.

Can a chicken dish at a fast food place really make change? Nolan thinks so. "Think about how people develop knowledge. We want to be one of those nodes of information. People can learn a little bit more and it will generate more interest. We don't want to be preachy, but these are things we want to celebrate."