With on-site gardens, planter beds need to be planted and replanted, with crops rotated throughout the seasons, just like a traditional, sustainable farm.
Built two years ago at the same time as the foodservice facility, the garden at VF Outdoors consists of eight raised planter boxes in varying sizes, each with its own drip irrigation system for less maintenance, according to Ryan Satchwell, executive chef and manager for Epicurean Group at VF Outdoor. Staff regularly transition the garden from one season to the next and continually plant food items to ensure produce is available year-round for the servery-style café, which serves an average of 250 meals per day.
For Bastille's garden, at the beginning of each season, Stoneburner and his team will begin the seeding in a hoop house and plant the crops once the weather warms in the spring. During the off-season, the beds and walls are covered with UV-rated sunshades for protection, similar to a hoop house, and the garden stays warm using heating from the building to grow produce such as heartier greens year-round. Rain sensors on the roof shut off the water during precipitation to prevent wasted water.
Restaurants often designate staff or hire others to help with garden maintenance. At Uncommon Ground, Cameron offsets those labor costs by hiring interns who can learn about gardening while they help with planting, weeding and harvesting.
When it is time for the harvest, produce grown through on-site gardens is subject to the same food safety regulations as traditional produce. Not all cities and municipalities require approval or certification of gardens to operate for commercial use. Restaurants must properly clean and store produce grown on-site using three-compartment or vegetable sinks, temperature-controlled refrigeration and the like.
Alameda County's health department took this one step further, developing guidelines for building, maintaining and harvesting on-site gardens at commercial foodservice operations because of the sudden increase in schools wanting to build their own gardens, according to Nahum Goldberg, senior associate and LEED AP at Cini-Little International, who worked on the kitchen design at VF Outdoor.
According to Goldberg, "They wanted to make sure the soil and compost was clean and from an authorized source, and that the garden was fenced in to keep wildlife and pests out to make sure the produce harvested was safe from contaminants."
When cooking, "we try to keep it simple," Stoneburner says. "The focus should be on the quality of ingredient you're using." Think: spaghettini with basil broth, zucchini, fava beans and parmesan. Or, lettuce hearts with local goat cheese, smoked bacon, radish, carrots and haricot vert. "My advice for restaurateurs interested in growing their own food would be to go for it — even if you don't have the space for a rooftop garden, you could line sidewalks and alleyways with pots and window beds. I have a few chef friends in the city who have done this very well."
Living — or green — walls are completely different from rooftop gardens, and many don't produce edibles; but they add that same sense of freshness and nature to a dining environment.
"Diners seem to like to sit by windows and be outside so to have that much greenery inside an otherwise dark restaurant really works for some," says Leslie Ott, an interior designer with Aria Architects based in Chicago.
Ott worked with California Pizza Kitchen to create a wooden, boxed-in herb display behind the host stand to add a green element as well as delicious scents. At a Nevada location, an exterior herb display takes shape as a vertical pallet garden with other plants on the restaurant's patio.
LYFE Kitchen, an emerging chain serving wholesome and organic dishes, has also developed herb walls as "natural art." The vertical structure, which measures 8 feet tall by 4 feet wide and stands in the middle of the dining room, grows lavender, rosemary, lemon verbena, lemongrass, oregano and other herbs. All 11 locations feature the wall.
"It's a really eye-catching, signature piece and a talking point for our guests who like to take pictures of the wall and post them on social media," says Nate Cooper, co-founder, partner and manager at L3 Hospitality Group. The walls are "certainly not cheap, but [they are] worth it because they bring a lot of character to the space and cost the same as other art or designs."
Though the restaurant cannot use the herbs for commercial consumption because some health departments prohibit edible installations without enclosures in eating spaces, they do add a delicious scent to the dining room. The restaurant also allows its employees to pluck the herbs for their own use, which helps maintain the planters as well.
Vip Manchanda, principal of Morsi, a new restaurant and bar in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood, feels his living walls have been worth the cost and maintenance because of the same natural vibe they create. "I installed the green walls in Morsi to showcase something which is greatly missing in New York — greenery," he says. "The green walls not only provide clean air within the restaurant, they are beautiful living art pieces. They also add a sense of relaxation to our dining room, which was in line with our vision to have an elegant as well as an inviting space."
The green walls sit on opposite sides of the dining room with vertical lighting alongside each of the boxes. Horticulturalist FireDean Schilling built Morsi's boxes without the need for soil by threading the roots of the plants through pockets of felt-like material behind the recycled glass wall. Quarter-inch irrigation hoses drip water down the back of the walls to feed the plants. The boxes are built separately and then positioned on the wall with enough space to allow for ventilation and prevent mold.
To cut back on maintenance, Schilling opts for a mix of woodland ferns that don't need as much light or water, though irrigation systems are set on a timer.
"The place was dark and depressing, and now it's very bright and airy, and the green walls definitely contribute to that," says Schilling. "They had the lights on the wall boxes off one night, and when they turned them on, the place literally erupted with a roar."
This lighting doesn't just play a role in atmosphere creation; it's crucial for maintaining the plants. Most green installations require some sort of LED or even florescent lighting for a fixed number of "daylight" hours, says Ott. "Fluorescents don't have that nice warm glow, so restaurants might want to turn them off." And some bulbs are hotter than others and can singe the plants. Lighting has to be chosen wisely.
Just like any major investment — a new line of kitchen equipment, a total interior design overhaul or a major menu makeover — building a garden or green wall can certainly elevate the quality and brand of a foodservice operation, but it will also cost money, time and effort. For some, it's like justifying energy-efficient pieces that cost more up-front but allow operators to reap more rewards down the line. For others, it's not just about staying on top of competition, but sprinting out ahead.