He Did It For Love

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My absolute favorite part of running a restaurant like Zeal is interacting with our guests. I love talking to them about their experience of our food, atmosphere, and culture. Maybe as much as I love the food itself. Recently, I met a table of new enthusiasts enjoying their meal – family style. In fact, one of them suggested we should have called Zeal “Share” instead, because it’s such a great place to pass the bowls around the table, touring a world of flavors.


Two couples sat at this particular table, and one of the ladies was telling me about a book that she was super excited about called Eating on the Wild Side. I’d read it too, and it’s a great, well-researched book about how to get the maximum benefit out of the fresh foods we buy and love from local farmer’s markets, or our favorite fresh food stores. It’s an inspiring read, and will make you want to hunt down the freshest produce possible and handle it with care to get every bit of phytonutrient bang for your buck.

As they were getting ready to leave, I dropped by their table one last time. One of the couples hung back and asked if I’d like to try a new product they had brewed. A mulled wine with dried fruit and spices. Really good stuff. Typically this would be a cold weather drink, served warm on it’s own or mixed with some creamy coconut milk…but the proprietor assured me it’s just as lovely over vanilla ice cream.

After tasting it, I told him we might be interested in carrying this bottle of locally made deliciousness.

“Is it organic?” I asked, retreating in my head in anticipation his answer, an answer all too typical in the food and beverage industry.

“No, it’s not.”

An uncomfortable pause…How could this table of food enthusiasts not value the mission of organic when it comes to crafting their own product?

I could have thanked them for coming in and said goodnight, but I was curious about this apparent dichotomy. I continued to probe.  Their first answer was that going fully organic is cost prohibitive, that’s the answer I hear the most.  As a restaurant operator trying to achieve 100% organic sourcing, I understand this argument, but it’s a weak one if you consider the many variables that go into profitability. Lowering the cost of your raw materials is important, but it isn’t everything. There are other ways to be more efficient to help offset higher costs in one area.

Then he said that the consumer of this product doesn’t really value organic as a differentiator. His feeling was that if he used organic ingredients, his price would have to be higher and his consumer would choose another brand.  Yep, possibly.  But in this case the argument is being made based on the fact that no one is currently making an organic fortified wine. He’s assuming that since no product exists, no consumer for it exists. Hmmmm…

I figured that instead of going after his technical reasons for using conventional over organic, I would appeal to the moral argument.  “Okay, I get that” I said to the couple. “What bothers me most about conventional agriculture is the way it turns fertile land into wasted deserts, the eroding of our topsoils, the persistent use of chemical fertilizers which are made by using oil to run industrial equipment turning rocks into nitrogen.  We are not leaving the world in good shape for our future generations unless we insist on organic farming practices”.

I was on a roll. “Organic farming leads to bio diversity, respects existing ecosystems, is better for the health of those working the farm, leads to greater choices for consumers, and creates better tasting food that is clean and therefore better for our health”.

Then it got interesting.

“I used to believe all of that,” he said. “I built a house that was organic, I grew organic food, I only purchased furniture and accessories and clothes and consumer products that met the highest standards of clean and sustainable.”

Wow, I suddenly felt like a bit of a sellout myself.  Maybe I wasn’t going far enough in my mission with Zeal? This guy had gone zero impact in every area of his life! But at some point he shifted away from that, why? And why had he taken it so far to begin with?

Love.  As the story started to unfold, I discovered that this was a mission to save someone he’d loved. Someone who was dying from cancer. As his current girlfriend moved in to comfort him, he explained all these amazing changes he had made to his life in the hope that if he could provide the healthiest environment imaginable he could save his wife from the cancer that was killing her.

But ultimately, cancer won and his wife died, and with it his trust in the organic way. He rebelled against everything that he had originally pursued with such passion. His heavy heart connected his loss to all the changes he had made. His optimistic belief that any of it would make a difference suddenly felt foolish. He had believed organic living could beat back a disease like cancer, that food is potent medicine.

And now I was the one feeling foolish, standing opposite this man making a meaningless pitch use organic grapes and other fruits for his wine.

He had me, and I backed down. I told him I understood and did my best to empathize as we wrapped it up.  I gave him a hug. Maybe eating clean food and cleansing your environment of toxins isn’t a guaranty that you can beat back a vicious disease? Maybe nothing could have solved his problem? Life is afterall, uncertain and impermanent.

But what if he could have prevented the cancer from ever showing up in the first place?  That’s the possibility that the world seems to have given up on. We can never prove it in his particular case, but what about all the other people the organic way could positively impact? Like this man’s new love, his friends and family, the people that will grow the grapes that he uses to make his wine, the people who consume it. This man probably learned to do things that many of us don’t know, and he could be a leader and an inspiration for tens, hundreds maybe thousands of people. That’s the optimistic view, that’s the man who rises up to a challenge, and that’s the way you memorialize someone you love passionately enough, someone for whom you changed the way you lived. You stay with it and continue to do it in their honor because their life may have been a sacrifice, so that others could thrive.  Breaking free of the status quo requires fortitude, perseverance, and patience. It’s not easy, it never will be. But it’s worth it, for love.

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