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Chefs start to see real cost savings from kitchen gardens

Tuesday - 8/19/2014, 4:52pm  ET

They say money doesn’t grow on trees, but some chefs around D.C. are finding some of it growing on tomato plants.

Chef’s gardens or kitchen gardens have been growing in popularity in recent years as the farm-to-table movement has picked up steam. In many cases, they’re only able to supplement a much larger produce demand restaurants have, but some D.C. restaurants have started to see the real fruits of their labor.

All of the Kimpton Hotel restaurants in the D.C. region have some form of garden, and Chef Ethan McKee significantly expanded the rooftop garden at Urbana at the Palomar Hotel in Dupont Circle this year.

The garden went from herbs in a few pots to 14 planter boxes each measuring 16 square feet. They’re still growing tons of herbs and garnishes, but they’re also growing more than 30 tomato plants.

“We decided if we were going to do it this year, we’ll make it big enough where it does have an impact on food costs,” he said.

The restaurant has been saving $250 per month in herbs since this year’s planting, and McKee expects to get that up to $475 per month next year with the addition of more beds. He also expects that savings to be year round, with plans to cover the herb beds with plastic sheeting once frost season arrives.

“Rather than planting a few of a lot of things, we decided to focus on at least one thing and make that really important,” he said of the tomatoes. The chef at one of his sister restaurants, Firefly in the Hotel Madera, had the same idea, planting 72 tomato plants this year for an expected $843 in savings.

Although the initial investment at Urbana was significant — approximately $250 per planter box, including wood, soil, plants and fertilizer — McKee expects the garden to more than break even.

Urbana has been closed for renovations for the last month, but once the restaurant reopens, he expects to save $300-$400 per month in tomato costs. In a business known for its razor-thin margins, that savings make a difference. Earlier in the season, the rooftop garden’s lettuces and radishes brought in $1,260 in revenue via a special “rooftop salad” served in the restaurant.

At Evening Star restaurant in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood, the kitchen has saved more than $3,000 on its produce bills during the past two months. However, the 1,000-square-foot garden on Evening Star’s roof cost a hefty sum to create last year — between $7,500 and $10,000, according to Neighborhood Restaurant Group CEO Michael Babin.

“The intent was not to go in to profit from the farm or to save the restaurant money,” he said. “We are really happy it is proven to make sense economically in comparison to some market prices — especially for some of the expensive and rare ingredients like herbs, edible flowers and heirloom varieties and we believe we will be able to be net positive in the future.”

The benefit, said Babin, was in the control over the menu and access to the freshest ingredients. McKee echoed that sentiment.

"The other reason we do it, is the produce is so incredible," he said. "You’re talking garden to plate in a few hours." (A sun gold tomato I popped into my mouth when McKee wasn't looking confirmed this assessment.)

That freshness factor can also result in savings, he added. Greens cut from the rooftop garden lasted approximately 10 days and were still usable, as opposed to four or five days for the stuff from produce companies, McKee said.

© 2014 American City Business Journals, Inc.