Vegan's Dozen

Restaurateur Harlan Ward didn't have to look far to find flagship products for a new bakery. Organic, vegan doughnuts and gluten-free rice bread, he says, practically found him.

With grocery stores and coffee shops signing on to sell his Organicos baked goods, Ward — former proprietor of Medford's Grilla Bites — is founding a new restaurant on the concept.

"We're kind of blazing a new trail here," says Ward, 55, who operated Grilla Bites for about four years on Medford's East Main Street.

The restaurant reopened Monday as Organicos Natural Cafe with a menu that retains the best of Grilla Bites' but caters to ever-demanding customers who made the Chico, Calif.-based chain a local favorite among health-conscious eaters.

"My clientele required more than what Grilla Bites offered," says Ward, adding that his branch of the restaurant started "absorbing good products."

Among those were the vegan, organic doughnuts Ward started producing in-house about a year ago. The first baker, who obtained the recipe from a San Francisco entrepreneur, brought Ward some samples, which quickly became a Grilla Bites staple.

"People who are vegan have gone through their lives without a treat," says Ward.

Glazed with reductions of raspberries and blueberries, the doughnuts were so good that customers — hardly believing the treats could be vegan — grilled restaurant staff about their ingredients and origin. Selling a few dozen doughnuts per week for $1.50 apiece, Ward says he occasionally had to referee disputes between patrons vying for the last one.

When the original baker left the area for Hawaii last year, Ward purchased the business to supply his own eatery, several locally owned grocery stores and a handful of coffee shops. Batches of nearly 1,000 doughnuts baked several times weekly will require a commercial kitchen facility larger than the restaurant's, Ward says.

Also rising in popularity is the gluten-free rice bread Ward has been selling for about four months after he perfected a recipe purchased from local baker Betty Lake. Ward was among Lake's customers when the Central Point resident decided she could no longer meet demand.

"Betty gave us the seed," says Ward.

Ward adapted Lake's home-grown recipe to commercial use and spent several months testing it before plying it to local grocers. An employee's mistake, Ward says, as well as the intentional addition of flaxseed, improved the product, which he sells for $6.75 per loaf.

"The binder is kind of our secret," Ward says.

Substituting the gluten-free bread for standard sandwich slices costs just 25 cents extra at the restaurant, Ward says. The new menu also will feature wraps and at least two daily hot lunch specials, such as chicken-sausage lasagna and gluten-free macaroni and cheese with broccoli. While there will be no change in prices, there will be new faces at the restaurant's helm.

Rogue Valley newcomers Russ and Julie Moore plan to purchase the Medford restaurant as Ward retains ownership of the Organicos baking business and menu format. Former Habitat for Humanity volunteers, the Moores say they value sustainability in the food industry and want to bring more local produce, meat and specialty products to Organicos.

Having moved to Medford in February, the couple — formerly of Corvallis — dined at Grilla Bites in both Medford and Ashland with their vegan daughter, who suggested they buy into the chain. Julie Moore, 51, has a background in finance while 49-year-old Russ Moore worked in engineering.

When the Moores called Ward for more information, he offered his restaurant outright, provided the Moores adopt the new Organicos identity. Ward says he plans to mentor the Moores through their first few months but believes the couple will bring new energy to the business, which already enjoys a loyal customer base.

Carrying an agricultural connotation, the Organicos name resonates with the Moores, who say they intend to retain the restaurant's employees, its support for local artists and ambiance as community gathering place.

"I think the vibe of the restaurant ... is so welcoming," says Julie Moore.

Reach Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or slemon@mailtribune.com.

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