DES MOINES, Iowa — Gardens have been named the hottest trend in restaurants this year as more chefs involved with the "eat local food" movement decide to grow their own tomatoes, herbs and other produce.
A third of the 2,000 chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association named gardens the top trend. Chris Moyer, who leads sustainability programs for the group, said it costs restaurants less to grow their own produce than to buy it elsewhere and have it shipped. It also gives them more control over quality, he said.
"It lets them offer things people are looking for, and a growing number of people are looking for that locally grown type of fare," Moyer said.
The association doesn't track how many restaurants have gardens, and its survey didn't ask chefs whether their restaurant had a garden or had one planned.
But Moyer said independent restaurants tend to be the ones with gardens because they have the flexibility to adjust their menus with what's in season.
"When you walk into a chain, you expect the same thing every time," he said. "Independent operators don't have the consistency factor that chain restaurants do, and that makes it easier for them to implement these gardens."
The Blue Water Grill in Grand Rapids, Mich., expanded its garden from about 1,000 square feet last year to about 3,000 square feet this year. It started mostly with tomatoes but has added squash, peppers, sweet corn, herbs and strawberries. The restaurant also has 12 fruit trees, including pear and apple.
"We just though it was a great opportunity that supported doing what we wanted to do and that was to be a local restaurant," general manager Kevin Vos said.
The garden also adds a personal touch, Vos said.
"A lot of times when we take customers for a garden tour, it starts with what we can do and 'Can we cook you something special tonight?'" he said.
Larry Bertsch and his wife, Diann, are weekly guests at the Blue Water Grill. While the garden is not the main reason they frequent the restaurant, it's a nice addition, Larry Bertsch said.
"It's a benefit knowing the food you're eating is grown 20 feet from the kitchen without pesticides or artificial fertilizers," said Bertsch, 50.
The garden also makes a nice view from the restaurant's windows and patios.
"The scene, the beautiful colors when everything is ripe, and the way the gardens are laid out — the beauty of how they've done it," Bertsch said.
Moyer said most restaurants start with small gardens in which they grow a few basics, such as lettuces, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. It's rare for them to grow everything they need because weather limits the growing season and big gardens take up staff time and space few restaurants can afford, he said.
Rob Weland, chef at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Washington, D.C., said his restaurant planted its first garden six years ago in an outside courtyard and it gets a little bigger each year. This year, fruit trees were added.
About 20 percent of what the restaurant uses is grown in the garden, which includes 12 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, basil, mint, tarragon, thyme and strawberries.
The restaurant also gears promotions around the garden, including Thursday events in which up to 15 people have a five-course meal prepared with produce grown there.
Paul Lee opened the Winchester restaurant in Grand Rapids, Mich., 18 months ago and planted a garden for it on a vacant lot not from far his restaurant this summer.
"We made a commitment to do an urban garden and with the movement to grow local, to shop local, it was just a natural fit for us," said Lee, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Jessica.
The Winchester's 4,000-square-foot garden provided about 10 percent of the vegetables and herbs the restaurant used this year, Lee said.
"Everything we take out we use to create dinner specials," Lee said. "It's been overwhelmingly positive."
In Manhattan, N.Y., the Bell Book & Candle is scheduled to open this fall, with 60 percent of the produce it uses coming from 60 hydroponic towers on the building's rooftop. Its owner and chef, John Mooney, is growing more than 70 varieties of herbs, vegetables and fruits on the roof.
The six-story building doesn't have an elevator, so an outdoor dumbwaiter system will lower produce from the roof to the kitchen door at ground level, Mooney said.
He said the move toward more restaurants growing their own produce is likely based in chefs' desire to better control the ingredients they use.
"I believe that when you and your staff care about your ingredients from start to finish they have a better appreciation for it," said Mooney, who also once owned a Florida restaurant that had a 22-acre garden. "It has a very positive effect on the guest experience as well."