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'Slow Food' Movement Gathers Momentum

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Just north of here, there's a family dairy that wouldn't exist if it hadn't shifted to organic products 10 years ago.

The Straus Family Creamery, with 38 workers, sells 27 million pounds of milk a year for as much as 50% more than major brands.

Thanks to the organic market, the creamery survived the consolidation sweeping the small-dairy industry. Now, it's getting a boost from the ''Slow Food'' movement -- born in Italy 17 years ago and spreading from hot spots in California and New York to points between.

Slow Food aims to be everything fast food is not. It's slow -- in the making and the eating. It's fresh -- not processed. It's from neighborhood farms and stores -- not from industrial growers such as Tyson Foods or retail goliaths such as Wal-Mart.

It doesn't aim to be big business. But businesses are sprouting around it -- and being affected by it. Armed with a snail logo, Slow Food chapters nationwide are promoting certain foods and restaurants. Celebrity supporters such as chef Alice Waters are giving star power and publicity to the cause. Slow Food cookbooks are hot among publishers. Slow Food supporters are rescuing cheeses, turkeys, rice, oysters and other foods endangered by corporate farming.

Meanwhile, Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats, two big grocery chains whose strategies mirror Slow's mission, saw annual revenue double in the past five years as overall supermarket revenue fell. And corporations including McDonald's are adding healthier fare.

To some extent, Slow Food picks up where the organic food revolt left off. ''It's adding fire to a revolution,'' says Patrick Martins, Slow Food USA executive director.

Once dismissed as a fringe market, organic foods now are a staple in most grocery stores. Annual U.S. sales rocketed to $11 billion this year from $1 billion in 1990, says the Organic Trade Association.

Slow Food might take off the same way, retail experts say. It started 17 years ago, after Italian author Carlo Petrini protested a McDonald's opening in Rome. The group, based in Italy, tapped into long-simmering worries about the influence of corporate farming. It slowly spread to the USA and elsewhere. It now has 75,000 members worldwide.

There are 70 U.S. chapters in more than 40 states. The 12,500 U.S. members dole out $60 each in annual dues. Its biggest U.S. bases are in New York and Northern California, where many food trends start. Whole Foods' San Francisco store, for instance, sells Straus milk. A Wild Oats in Portland, Ore., went so far as to paint Slow Food's mission statement inside the store.

Some chapters, with 100 or more members, are so popular they're turning away members. Jon Winge, 55, of Pleasant Hill, Calif., joined two years ago. The senior administrative analyst for the city of San Francisco learned about Slow Food on the Internet. He contacted the New York office and was introduced to a chapter in a nearby county.

''I thought it was such a cool idea,'' says Winge, a self-described former hippie who has long shopped at food co-ops and farmers' markets. ''I like the idea of having a relationship in the process of consuming things. It is an exchange. You support these people to produce these beautiful products for you. I feel enriched by that.''

This month, about 30 members met at a winery in California's Napa Valley, the heart of wine country. They learned how to roast ''heritage'' turkeys over an open fire. The organic Narragansett birds cost about $6 a pound vs. about $1.29 for a Butterball.

Two turkeys sizzled for hours in an outdoor fireplace. Red bell peppers roasted in the glowing embers. The sun set on distant grapevines. William Rubel, author of The Magic of Fire cookbook, talked up the social benefits of fireplace cooking. ''Whoever fell in love cooking over a little gas flame?'' he asked wine-sipping guests. ''You only live once. Each meal should be a special occasion.''

In the USA, Slow Foodies have tended to be well-educated and well-heeled. The U.S. arm is sensitive to that image. But director Martins says women's rights and other social movements started small and affluent before going mainstream.

Local businesses jump in

As Slow spreads, it's spurring growth in:

* Food. In Gonzales, La., Bittersweet Plantation Dairy opened 18 months ago to make Creole cream cheese. That's a century-old Louisiana favorite that many dairies stopped making in the 1970s. Bittersweet, starting with two workers, now has 10 cranking out 4,000 pounds a week for sale in Louisiana and across the USA.

Owner John Folse can't make more without expanding. The attention Bittersweet gets from Slow's national Web site has ''absolutely'' boosted sales, he says.

The cheese has a texture like firm sour cream. Folse dreamed of reviving it for years. He recalls his grandmother eating a bowl of it daily with a dollop of sugar.

About 200 miles northwest of St. Paul, Ojibwe Indians sell more wild rice from the Leech Lake Reservation. It, too, is promoted by Slow Food. Retailer Northland Native American Products sells as much as 3,000 pounds of the rice a year at $8 a pound. That's about four times the price of wild rice in supermarkets such as Safeway.

The sales help the tribe continue traditions. Several hundred tribe members harvest the rice by hand from canoes, then parch it over hardwood fires while sharing stories, says Northland Native owner Ken Bellanger.

North of San Francisco, Cowgirl Creamery makes 3,000 pounds of cheese a week with Straus dairy milk. It opened in 1997, and its award-winning artisan cheeses start at $18 a pound through merchants such as Williams-Sonoma.

* Publishing. More cookbooks, already a big category for publishers, have Slow Food themes.

They include eight by chef Waters, who promoted a Slow Food approach with zeal long before it had a name.

Waters, founder of the acclaimed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., says Slow doesn't have to be expensive or complicated. It can be as simple as brewing tea from a local store. If people can spend $100 for Nike shoes or watch TV for hours, they can afford to eat Slow Food, she says.

Another Slow hit is Chronicle Books' Pleasures of Slow Food, published last year. It's in a second printing after the first sold out.

* Tourism. Slow Food's U.S. arm just published a guide to 550 restaurants, bars and markets in New York. It lists places with tasty food that doesn't hurt the environment when it's made. Slow has sold 10,000 copies at $20 a pop. Next up: a guide to Chicago and other Midwestern cities.

The guides follow the group's goal to promote Slow-friendly businesses and expand its reach beyond well-to-do foodies. ''It's through expansion that the products we embrace will become cheaper -- that they'll become more accessible,'' Martins says.

In Philadelphia, the White Dog Café has won more business because of a mention on the local Slow chapter's Web site, says co-owner Kevin von Klause. Customers feast on salads of local organic Asian pear and red apple with crabmeat for $11. White Dog's annual end-of-summer ''Dance of the Ripe Tomatoes'' party brings together customers with the farmers who supply the restaurant.

Going mainstream

Slow's influence could accelerate trends already affecting big business, marketing experts say.

McDonald's last summer added more low-fat salads, muffins and other healthy fare to its menu, partly to stem flagging sales amid growing competition from sandwich chains such as Panera Bread.

Panera and similar eateries sell made-to-order meals with fresh ingredients. Their success shows consumers are willing to slow down and pay more, says consultant Janet Lowder of Restaurant Management Services. ''People are flocking to them,'' she says.

Whole Foods customers will pay more because they want to support local farmers who supply the chain, says company official Cathy Strange. She buys cheese, beer, coffee and chocolate. Her suppliers include more than 150 small cheese makers.

As Whole Foods and Wild Oats outdo rivals, mainstream suppliers such as Dean Foods are taking notice. The No. 1 milk producer last year expanded its soy milk line by snapping up 65% of White Wave for $189 million. White Wave makes Silk, a soy milk brand. Many consumers believe soy milk production is more eco-friendly than regular milk production, says White Wave founder Steve Demos. That consumer interest partly drove Dean's purchase.

The Slow movement is a return to life as it was, Demos says. ''Isn't it funny that we pay more for an heirloom tomato? That's what we ate as kids,'' he says.

Still, Slow's mission clashes with long-standing trends. Consumers, starved for time as they work longer hours, are spending more than ever at restaurants. Companies entice consumers with new products such as Mars candies packaged for car-cup holders.

''The American family will continue to eat fast food,'' says Kenneth Herbst, assistant professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. ''For most, food is a word we love. Slow is a word we despise.''Cover storyContinued fromCover storyCover story

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