Gary Hirshberg's idealistic new cafes jump into the main stream

Gary Hirshberg's idealistic new cafes jump into the main stream

Gary Hirshberg, the founder and self-styled CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms, the largest organic yogurt maker in the world, is now launching innovative offshoots like a healthy vending-machine program for schools and healthy fast-food franchise restaurants called O'Naturals.

Entering one of Hirshberg's idealistic new cafés in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts, one finds a pair of university students sipping Fair Trade coffee, clicking away on their laptops. Above them, a poster showing content, plump fowl announces: "Our chickens don't do drugs."

Clearly, O'Naturals is not your typical fast-food joint.

Much of O'Naturals' mission can be summed up in the bold proclamation on the restaurant's wall: "Ingredients: We have this crazy idea that your food ought to be 100% food. All of our ingredients are free of additives, preservatives, artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners and hydrogenated oils." With four restaurants in New England and 450 franchise requests under review, O'Naturals and its largely organic comfort-foods menu may be poised to make a splash in the shark-infested fast-food mainstream. Along with profit, he says, he hopes to make a healthy difference for consumers and for the environment.

Hirshberg opened the first O'Naturals in May 2001. When asked how O'Naturals satisfies customers who are used to bargain meals at the local Burger King, Hirshberg explains that "Our customer base isn't about income, it's about education. All we needed were label readers, people who think about what goes into their bodies and into their kids' stomachs."

Hirshberg's dreams for five years hence, are that you will find organic and natural foods in every place that food is sold-on airlines, in college cafeterias, in fast food along the highway.

-Allison Cleary