5 Benefits of Growing a Culinary Garden at Your RestaurantEven a small herb garden or a few tomato plants can help set your restaurant apart.
A culinary garden can seem rather quaint, evoking images of a windowsill planter with a few stems of basil and rosemary. But some restaurants, like Milton’s Cuisine & Cocktails in Milton, Georgia, are finding that growing vegetables on-site can boost business and provide advantages that extend beyond the plate.
“We’ve got a one-acre garden at our restaurant, where we grow our non-GMO, organic vegetables. It’s pretty fantastic — there’s nothing else like it in Atlanta,” said executive chef Derek Dollar, who’s created Milton’s menus around what he picks in the garden for the last six years.
While Milton’s has the land to sustain a large, thriving garden, Dollar said most restaurants will benefit from growing some edibles, even if it’s just a small herb garden or a couple tomato plants. Here’s why.
Fresh, flavorful ingredients
Few if any distributors will give you access to the quality of produce you can grow in a culinary garden. “Some produce from distributors takes a week to get to us. It’s usually from California. There are local growers for some items, but it still takes a good bit of time to reach us,” said Dollar.
Even if customers don’t know you grew the vegetables in their salad (and of course you should tell them), they’ll taste the difference.
“Having the ability to get something out of the garden that day increases the nutrition value, moisture level and flavor content. If you cut into a cucumber from our garden, you can watch the water pour out of it. The flavor profile is incredible,” he said.
The lure of local
According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2017 Culinary Forecast, locally sourced produce is one of the top 10 concept trends. Growing your own produce makes your restaurant more attractive to diners and allows you to highlight local, seasonal flavors, said Dollar.
“I usually plan my menus up to four months in advance. For our spring menu, I started developing ideas in January, going through catalogues and picking out seeds that are new to me or have worked well in the past.”
Dollar said he designs his menus around the freshest ingredients available in the season. His spring menu will include a fried and stuffed zucchini squash blossom and pea shoot salad.
A culinary garden offers the chance to grow interesting ingredients you can’t find elsewhere. Dollar takes advantage by planting regional heirloom varieties. “We grow a lot of Cherokee Purple tomatoes, which are indigenous to Georgia. We use them in caprese salad, which is definitely a hit.”
Bringing in new and repeat business
Visiting a culinary garden is a novel experience that will draw in new diners eager to connect with the source of their food. Dollar said the opportunity to see and touch plants is especially appealing to children.
“We bring scout troops and local schools in for field trips, and it really helps. They’ll come over and plant their own tomatoes and put their name on a stake,” said Dollar.
You can bet those kids will beg their parents to take them back to your restaurant throughout the season to watch their plants grow, which can mean big bucks in repeat business. “We start with the kids and it definitely spills over to the parents,” he said.
Providing a unique event space
With enough attention to landscaping, your culinary garden can be converted into a unique event space.
“At first we designed the garden to help us save a little money and have fun, but now it’s become a really big event space and it’s part of our identity,” said Dollar.
People rent out Milton’s garden for rustic weddings, corporate functions and other private events. The restaurant also hosts ticketed dinner events right in the garden.
“We’ll connect tables down the center of the garden in the grassy aisles and feed about 100 people. They get to sit and eat the vegetables that are growing right next to them. We feed everybody family style and the tickets sell out quickly,” said Dollar.
He admits that it takes time and money to beautify the garden, but it’s an investment that pays off. “We can’t quantify how much we make off of it because of all the events we can host there, plus the marketing and PR it offers us.”
Boosting your brand identity
A culinary garden serves as a one-of-a-kind conversation starter for your staff and guests. Dollar said it’s the number one benefit of growing produce on site.
“When it’s in full bloom, it’s the first thing that comes up,” he said. “Once customers see it, it’s engrained that they’re going to have a wonderful experience at our restaurant.”
Dollar said restaurants will benefit from building their identity around their gardens. He tries to incorporate their garden throughout the dining experience, from the setting and menus to the doggy bags.
“We give little grab bags of zucchinis and tomatoes to customers so they can bring the Milton’s experience back home with them.”
Talk about a fresh marketing idea.