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Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis

Grilla Bites

Many people are thinking about more than satisfying their appetites at mealtime. In addition to health and flavor, consumers are growing more concerned about the origin of their food.

That trend is boosting interest from both customers and potential franchisees in Grilla Bites, a small chain based in Chico, California, serving sustainable and organic foods. Founder and CEO Fred Marken opened Grilla Bites, so named to reflect the focus on grilled sandwiches, in December 2002 in Chico. He opened three more stores in early 2006, another in Chico and two a few hours north in Medford and Ashland, Oregon. A Bend, Oregon, location is scheduled to open next spring.

Grilla Bites isn’t Marken’s first foray into restaurants or organic foods. He owned and operated a café before moving into manufacturing of organic pasta and salsa in the 1980s and later starting New Organics, which he sold to Wal-Mart in 1995.

Launching Grilla Bites was as much a calling as a business decision for Marken. “I’m doing what I feel is right, feeding people healthy food grown locally. This is kind of like a vote against the big corporations. I’m buying organic.”

Marken’s vote might seem to have little impact in the marketplace, but many more might soon hear his message.

Ten more Grilla Bites are planned for the Northwest in the next year. With greater brand awareness, Marken hopes to open 50 locations annually. Initially he plans to license the name and concept, encouraging owners to run their cafés according to his guidelines: buying organic as much as possible, from sustainable producers and within a 200-mile radius. Franchising might come later. “I’m not into big money; I don’t want to cut out the little guy. I want to be able to sell to young people who might not have a million in assets, but believe in our mission.”

The Grilla Bites menu includes an array of grilled sandwiches plus a daily selection of organic soups and a create-your-own organic salad option. Ingredients are natural; most are organic. Marken doesn’t buy organic cheese, because the extreme cost would drive his prices too high.

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