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Grilla Bites stakes its claim as a healthy food chain

Steve Brown - Staff Writer, Chico Enterprise Record
June 27, 2006

Grilla Bites customers can look out on an ornate fountain if they choose to eat on the restaurant's patio. The restaurant is behind Golden Valley Bank in the Garden Villa complex.

Healthy eating is important to Fred Marken, but he also likes to have fun with the idea.

That's why the logo for his Grilla Bites restaurants features a drawing of a gorilla. "I want to appeal to a kid's silliness," he said. The logo also makes a point about nutrition. "Gorillas are vegetarians, but they're big and powerful."

The name has more than one meaning: "Our sandwiches are grilled and then you bite them," Marken said.

He hopes the name will become a "brand" that stands for nutritious food and a concern for customers' health. He opened his first Grilla Bites three years ago, in downtown Chico. In the last year, he's opened three more. Two are in Ashland and Medford, in southern Oregon. The third is in the Garden Villa complex on Cohasset Road, behind Golden Valley Bank. He would like to open Grilla Bites in other Oregon communities such as Eugene, Grants Pass and Bend. "I want to attract partners who will buy into the concept. I would train them, but they would operate the restaurants themselves."

Marken's concept is to provide customers in the region with an alternative to corporate-run chains and franchises that serve unhealthy food. "I'd like to open a Grilla Bites along the I-5 Freeway."

Although he's sincere about his mission, he wants his restaurants to be fun, easygoing places, "where you can have a beer with your health food and you can eat meat if you want to." Many of Grilla Bites' customers are vegans and vegetarians, but he says he's not a purist. "I try to be flexible. Our menu is probably about 80 percent vegetarian. We serve turkey and pastrami sandwiches. But we use free-range, hormone-free meat."

Salads represent 40 percent of Grilla Bite's sales, but Marken doesn't fret if every piece of produce isn't organically grown. "About 80 percent of it is, and much of it comes from small organic farmers in the Bay Area," he said.

All of Grilla Bites sandwiches use Vegenaise, a product made from grape seed oil, instead of mayonnaise. His chips, which are served with his sandwiches, come with an organic hummus dip.

Working with nearby businesses is part of Grilla Bites' philosophy. Marken gets his bread and other baked goods from Tin Roof Bakery, his tofu from Cal of Chico, some of his produce from S & S Produce and some of his beverages from Knudsen.

Marken said Grilla Bites' prices "are pretty good" considering the healthfulness of the food. He said if people took care of their bodies as well as they take care of their cars they wouldn't mind having to pay more for food. He said people should eat out less often than they do and grow some of the food they eat.

But when they do go out, he wants them to enjoy their surroundings. The new Grilla Bites on Cohasset Road occupies a spacious room. A mural depicting an oak tree and crop fields has been painted on one of the walls. Guests can eat on an outdoor patio with canopied tables and a view of an ornate fountain. "Our setting is great," Marken said. "It's like a little Europe."

He said the new Chico Grilla Bites reminds him of how LaSalles Restaurant looked when he owned it from 1975 to 1985. "It was big, and it had a garden." Marken has also owned two other Chico restaurants: The Sandpiper and The Elegant Spud.

The new Grilla Bites location is open 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Depending on the time of day, it has breakfast and dinner entrées in addition to sandwiches, soups and salads.

Marken is affiliated with the "slow food" movement, which Carlo Petrini, a food and wine writer in Italiy, started 20 years ago in response to the opening of a McDonald's in Rome. The movement stresses the importance of regional and seasonal foods, the contributions of small family farms, the value of organically grown produce and the quality of traditional food preparation. Marken is a member of Chico Food Network, a slow food organization.

© 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.


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