Any chef worth his salt wants to work with fresh, local, sustainably grown ingredients. Growing your own right at the restaurant takes that ethos just as far as it can go, and it makes good business sense. A patio garden appeals to health- and environmentally-conscious diners – which makes it a great promotional tool. But don’t dust off the rake just yet, here are some tips for growing your own restaurant garden that will set you up for culinary success.
Do Your Due Diligence
There are a few things you'll need to do before trucks start delivering topsoil to your patio. First, make sure your garden won't violate any local ordinances. You'll also have to consider the placement of your planters so you do not take away from the number of seats in the outdoor dining area. If all else fails, it's surprising what you can grow in planters in your parking lot.
Patio space is generally pretty limited, so be creative. Fresh herbs can usually be grown close together which makes them space-efficient. Grow root crops – specialty radishes, perhaps, or baby carrots – between climbing vines. Whenever possible, choose plants that grow vertically. Peas and beans are natural climbers; so are day-neutral strawberries, which dangle from their baskets. Any vining plants, like squash, melons and pumpkins, can be grown vertically if you give them enough support.
Prioritize for Impact
If you serve 1,000 pizzas a day, you won't grow enough tomatoes in your garden to make your own sauce or pesto. Think impact, rather than volume. Grow ingredients that stand out and hold a visible place on your plate. For example, imagine bringing your diners an heirloom tomato still warm from the vine and slicing it tableside or turning it into a fresh salsa or tomato Soup in your Vitamix machine. That's exactly the kind of story that translates well to a printed menu, and from there to profitable orders and repeat business.
The Garden Won't Grow Itself
If you're not a seasoned gardener, you'll probably underestimate how much work is involved in keeping your crops flourishing and pest-free. If you do it yourself, that's time taken away from management duties, and having staff tend to the plants adds to labor costs. Sometimes the simplest solution is to hire a gardener. Startups in some cities even offer garden maintenance services for chefs.
Plan for Growth
If your onsite garden works out well, you'll need to plan for further growth. That might mean salad greens, herbs and edible flowers right inside your dining area. New York City's Bell, Book and Candle uses high-tech "aeroponic" towers to make its rooftop garden more productive, growing startling quantities of greenery in a small space. If you're creative and motivated in your approach, the sky's the limit.