“If Whole Foods and Denny’s had sex, what would the baby look like?” asked Jeff Wells, Company Café’s Operations Manager and concept developer. If such a grand slam ever occurred, if gluttony could go gluten-free, it would look Ron Swanson in a plaid shirt digging into Company Café’s chicken fried steak.
“We make chicken fried steak good for you. When you look at chicken fried steak — that’s the quintessential comfort food. You’re going to need a nap after you eat this kind of thing. We’re going to take grass-fed meat and we’re going to dust in something other than flour and we’re going to fry it not in peanut oil or zero-trans-fat genetically-modified canola oil, but we’re going to in olive oil pomace. So you’re going to have an omega-3-friendly fat that you’re frying in. We’re going to make our gravy without wheat, again, no bacon grease. We’re going to make an olive oil roux and finish it off with organic milk, add jalapeno and a little honey to it — add a funky twist,” he says. “You get it with two pasture-raised eggs and gluten-free toast — that’s unheard of. It’s chicken fried steak, but you can go throughout your day and feel like you’re breaking even instead of being set back a few steps.”
Taking baby steps toward better health is part of Wells’ philosophy. Pointing out that most people can only stay on their dieting plans 70 percent of the time anyway, Wells hopes to make Company Café part of a person’s recovery strategy when they eat something less healthy. His attention to sourcing and the processing of food stems from his personal experience with genetically modified, gluten-rich and highly processed foods.
“In 2005 I was diagnosed with gluten intolerance and dairy intolerance and I didn’t know where to eat. So I started re-tweaking food that I loved with my brother-in-law, and we just took comfort food items and tried to figure out a way to make them less stressful for you.”
“Gluten-free” is a term that has become a grocery store buzzword, but less than one percent of the population will have a strong reaction to gluten. However, Wells adds that many more people suffer increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, as part of a reaction to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in processed wheat, barley and rye. Genetically modified food and overly processed foods can also elicit negative reactions from the body. Even ubiquitous processing techniques such as homogenization can have subtle influence on some people’s overall health, Wells states.
“Homogenization is the pressurization of the whey and the fat under 3,000 pounds of pressure through a fine-mesh sieve so the fat molecules latch onto the whey and the body can’t get a hold of it. So the body’s either going to view it as an invader and because it’s been pasteurized and there’s no living enzymes in it, the body has to produce those enzymes to aid in the lactose, casein and fat that are in dairy. So the body’s going to view it as in invader or store it as toxicity in fat…So we just try to clean up the protein, we’re going to tweak that wheat element and use something that’s easier [on the body] and then isolate that dairy and use something that’s going to be organic, or low-temp pasteurized or non-homogenized, especially.”
Obtaining enough properly sourced product to run a restaurant, let alone two locations, is always a challenge. Wild-caught salmon, organic milk, pasture-raised eggs and local produce are certainly more niche ingredients than what’s found in an average restaurant, but Wells says that seven years of experience in this type of concept has helped him find vendors.
“Five or six years ago it was incredibly difficult to get, but now it’s just come full circle from farm to table. It’s definitely a mainstream line of thinking.”
Wells’ drive to source the food and provide his chefs with the raw materials gives Company Café the foundation it needs to stand, but the menu is what keeps people coming back. Wells makes cooking a contest in the Company Café kitchens. Winning dishes are featured as specials and find their way onto the menu if they become popular.
Perhaps it’s the satisfaction of treating animals more humanely, but to patrons of Company Café grass-fed meats and pasture-raised eggs translate to better taste. While grocery store buzzwords like “cage-free” help sell to conscientious buyers, Company Café’s aim for food that’s honest with itself and others.
“I think that we should come down to the real nuts and bolts of something and create something authentic and honest. Regardless of the model — whether it’s full-service, fast-casual, fast-food, drive through — if it’s honest and authentic, nine times out of ten it’s going to resonate so much more so than a billion dollar advertising campaign.”