The grilling season
Chico business legend starts an organic restaurant for everybody
Fred Marken has a gorilla hopping around his about-to-open restaurant on Second Street in downtown Chico.
It’s a play on words: The restaurant is called “Grilla Bites,” but the gorilla is confused and thinks there’s food for him there. Get it? Grilla. Gorilla. Yeah.
It’s the latest creative move for Marken, a 1969 Chico State University history graduate who has had a series of businesses in Chico and beyond, most of them successful. In the 1970 and ‘80s he owned the Metamorphosis clothing store and the Drop-In bar downtown, the Elegant Spud at the North Valley Plaza mall and the Sandpiper on Cohasset Road. He converted the Drop-in to LaSalles, creating it as Chico’s first bistro-style community bar, one with art on the walls and a garden in back.
Marken left Chico for the Bay Area about 15 years ago and developed and marketed his own line of peanut, ginger, teriyaki and molé sauces as Marken Foods. His goal was to penetrate traditional supermarkets with organic products. He put those skills to work by joining up with a friend who made organic pasta and eventually took that company, Garden Valley, public on the stock market.
The prospect of more time with his grandchildren lured him back to Chico, where he has been substitute teaching for the past year. “I missed the community, the downtown, the bike-riding in the park.” His wife, Ilona Toko, is supportive behind the scenes.
When designing his latest venture, Marken looked to 17 principles outlined by slow-food guru Wendell Berry, who urges people to consider what’s best for their communities, from supporting local farms to making sure money circulates in town as long as possible. “We’re trying to be what we think is responsible,” Marken said.
But at the same time, he said, “I’m not trying to sell a philosophy here. I’m just trying to serve good food served in a timely manner.” It’s fast food done healthfully.
“This will [attract] all types of people,” he said. “This is not an organic, natural-foods restaurant.” There will be ham-and-cheese sandwiches as well as vegan soups and an organic salad bar. Warm sandwiches will be grilled in organic olive oil, and Amy’s brand pot pies round out the menu. “A lot of our recipes are out of The Moosewood Cookbook.
“This is what we call cross-marketing. You have a choice,” Marken said. “It’s kind of fun finding a niche that people aren’t filling,” he added.
Marken has been in the organic business for 20 years, most recently in northern Siskiyou County, where he farmed organic asparagus and also ran a bed and breakfast. He sees the organic market growing at a rate of about 20 percent a year, and the presence of organic foods in mainstream supermarkets should lead to more competitive pricing.
“For the most part, you’re not going to convince the average consumer to buy organic, because organic is a philosophy.”
Marken will be buying much of his goods from Tin Roof Bakery, a new, family-owned business on Highway 32, and from Matt Martin, an organic farmer who sells broccoli, beets, carrots, squash and other commodities at the Saturday Farmers’ Market.
“It always helps to have additional markets for your food,” said Martin, who sells produce to other restaurants. But Marken is the first to make promoting local agriculture a centerpiece of his business.
Marken said, “I think there’s enough agriculture in Butte County to supply all of Chico. It’s just that the distribution system is so corporatized it’s difficult to get into the major markets.”
One of the perceptions about organic food is that it costs more. “It is true it’s more expensive, because it’s more expensive to raise,” Martin said.
But Marken has apparently found a way to compensate for that. His sandwiches—from turkey pesto to peanut butter and jelly—will run only $3.25. Fresh-squeezed local orange juice is $1.99.
He already has an idea for another business: a grocery store with organic foods, but with low prices. "I could do it in Chico," he said. "People say they want Trader Joe’s here. Why don’t we build our own Trader Joe’s? I can get all that product."