Longtime organic gardener and cook Monika DuBois didn't want a business just to feed customers. The owner of Ashland's Grilla Bites wanted work to nourish her body and satisfy her penchant for "whole-systems thinking."
"I want something that's really feeding me," says DuBois.
With a course in permaculture design under her belt, the Ashland resident spied a newspaper advertisement for an opportunity in the organics business. When she realized it was a restaurant, DuBois proceeded with caution, wary from years of off-and-on work in the industry as a young woman.
But Grilla Bites founder Fred Marken impressed her and then-husband Tom DuBois with his numerous inroads to the realm of organic foods. And the small chain's focus on panini, soups and a salad bar containing organic ingredients seemed less demanding than the traditional restaurant model with a chef and service staff, says Monika DuBois.
The couple bought into Marken's concept and, with his partnership, installed Grilla Bites on Ashland's Plaza in 2006. Five years later, DuBois, 55, assumed responsibility for the entire business and its mission to serve the healthful, casual meals that readers of Oregon Healthy Living lauded in 2010. Grilla Bites — along with an independent Medford location that has since changed hands and names — won the magazine's Readers' Picks poll for best natural or whole-foods eatery, salad bar and healthful lunch.
"I pay very close attention to quality of food," says DuBois, who does much of the cooking. "Our restaurant is the hardest to run in a certain way."
The original emphasis on organic food has served as a springboard for meeting more customer standards, says DuBois, explaining that if consumer awareness grew in the decades between her work in restaurants, it's only mounted in the relatively short time she's owned Grilla Bites.
"We've added more layers on top of that," she says. "Now there's local; now there's sustainable.
"It's becoming more like a pyramid," she adds, explaining that organic is essentially the foundation of Grilla Bites' menu, which increasingly seeks to satisfy dietary preferences and restrictions, including gluten-free, dairy-free and even tree nut- and nightshade-free.
"The needs of Ashland people are very specific," says DuBois.
The local clientele, she says, has refined the "flavor" of its Grilla Bites, just as customers have set the tone at the chain's three other establishments in Redding and Chico, Calif., and Snohomish, Wash. To the core menu of "grilla" sandwiches, homemade soups and salads priced by weight, DuBois soon added locally raised, grass-fed beef and Full Circle bison.
DuBois also purchases locally grown vegetables in season, even supplementing with some from her own garden. But because of limited, year-round availability and farmers' pricing, local produce constitutes less than 10 percent of the restaurant's total, says DuBois. Most of Grilla Bites' nonperishable goods come from United Natural Foods.
"I can only support a few of the local growers," she says. "It's so fulfilling to know that at least I'm trying."
Grilla Bites also contracts with local bakeries — SunStone, Rise Up! and Village Baker — for its breads and buns. Gluten-free bread, however, isn't produced locally to DuBois liking. And even though Grilla Bites can substitute slices of rice bread, DuBois can't devote an entire panini press to sandwiches for customers with extreme sensitivity to the natural protein found in wheat, rye and barley that can cause the life-threatening autoimmune reaction known as celiac disease.
So DuBois makes compromises where she can. Pesto contains neither nuts nor cheese. Vegenaise is the default sandwich spread, even when turkey and pastrami are the proteins.
The salad bar's 30 to 40 items revolve around organic Romaine lettuce, spinach and spring mix, although a few ingredients, such as artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives, just aren't cost-effective in certified-organic form, says DuBois. While the original Grilla Bites location in Chico featured Annie's Naturals salad dressings, DuBois is in the process of making her own, including a signature vegan Caesar.
At $8.75 per pound, the salad straddles the midpoint of Grilla Bites' pricing. Bowls of soup and half sandwiches — served with organic blue corn chips or fresh veggies and hummus — cost $5.99. Whole "grillas" are $7.99 to $8.99, and bison burgers top tariffs at $12.99.
DuBois says she tries to keep prices in line with Grilla Bites' persona as a sandwich shop. Taking orders at the counter and delivering food to each table is part of Marken's original model.
The concept continues to attract large numbers of travelers who stop in Ashland specifically for organic cuisine, says DuBois, along with loyal locals, from teenagers to adults in their 60s.
Grilla Bites, she adds, appeals to just about everyone's idea of healthful eating.
"That's the reason why I'm successful."