A decade ago, restaurateur Paul Lee transformed a vacant lot into an urban garden to provide fresh produce and herbs for The Winchester, a neighborhood gastropub in Grand Rapids.
“We were in an area that had been long neglected, so rather than stare at a vacant plot of land, we wanted to create more of a destination for our restaurant,” Lee says. “It kind of became more of an experience when you went out and dined.”
Back then, urban gardens, farm-to-table restaurants and food trucks were more novelty than the norm. It’s a trend that has since swept the state, with restaurants and breweries now sourcing and celebrating local food from local farmers.
The Winchester Garden led to other gardens and restaurants in the same vicinity, helping to revitalize a blighted stretch of Wealthy Street into a hip business district. Lee also co-owns Donkey Taqueria, What The Truck food truck and other restaurant and residential ventures.
Lee’s restaurants still use produce and herbs from the gardens for specialty dishes and cocktails, and host garden party dinners, but they started sourcing produce from local growers due to the volume.
“You can definitely taste something that is fresh versus something that has maybe traveled across the country,” Lee says.
Bath-based farmer Adam Montri and his wife, Dru, started Ten Hens Farm in 2007 with the intent of selling directly to restaurants and food trucks.
The Montris grow a variety of mixed vegetables and salad greens on 3 acres, plus have 17,000 square feet of high tunnel space and a heated greenhouse. They formed
an early partnership with The Purple Carrot food truck and now distribute to several restaurants and food trucks.
Ten Hens also sells to local food hubs that then supply fresh produce to schools, hospitals, daycares and more. The Montris also participate in a multi-farm community supported agriculture, or CSA, where customers buy a share of the harvest at the beginning of the season and enjoy fresh, local products all season long. They also sell weekly at the Bath Farmers Market and have a farm stand during summer and fall.
“I think the key to our success is having high-quality products we stand behind and being able to deliver the volume to the restaurants consistently throughout the season,” Montri says.
Buying local benefits restaurants because it reduces spoilage rates and enhances taste. In addition, diners have become more health and consumer conscious.
“People want to know where their food is coming from and they want to know how it’s being raised, whether that’s produce, protein or grains,” Montri says.