There’s nothing unusual anymore about a chef or restaurant having a garden to provide herbs and veggies as food and drink ingredients. It’s a hyper-local aspect of the farm-to-table movement and its companion move toward better-for-you ingredients.
One Chicago project has expanded on that movement by creating a half-acre rooftop garden at McCormick Place West, part of the massive convention center that is currently hosting the annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show.
The soil-based garden, said to be the largest of its kind in the Midwest, was planted by the Chicago Botanic Garden and provides fresh produce for the restaurant and catering operations of SAVOR, the food and beverage company servicing McCormick Place. Last year, the rooftop garden produced 4,000 pounds of beets, collards, carrots, herbs, peppers, tomatoes, and more, and that should rise to 6,000 pounds this year, says Kevin Jezewski, beverage director for SAVOR at McCormick Place.
The garden is tended by Windy City Harvest, a program that trains young adults in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture. It’s a partnership of the Chicago Botanic Garden and Richard J. Daley College and is supported by various businesses and groups. The certificate program includes six months of hands-on greenhouse and outdoor-growing instruction at various locations, and then a three-month paid internship.
“The project here at McCormick Place is very exciting,” says Angie Mason, director of the urban agriculture program for Windy City Harvest. Of all the internships available, “this is the one most where most of the interns want to be.”
The garden stands as a potential template for other cities to raise crops in unused urban settings or for restaurants in a particular area to band together to raise produce while helping to educate deserving young adults in horticulture. Several cities have programs that involve raising fresh produce with some sort of link to restaurants. In Atlanta, for instance, the Captain Planet Foundation is working with local school systems to help students learn how to raise fruit and vegetables.
The foundation installs six growing beds at each school: five for veggies, fruits, and herbs, and one for native habitat. Each school also receives a mobile cooking cart, and the foundation has teamed with the Georgia Restaurant Association to help pair the schools with chefs, who use the carts to help demonstrate how the produce can be cooked.
At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, an indoor aeroponic vertical garden provides some produce for several of the airport’s fast-casual and full-service restaurants, says Tim Blank, founder and chief executive of Future Growing, the company that designed that garden. He’s not sure, however, if restaurants would consider banding together to create their own communal garden that they all can use. “I’ve found they’re a very competitive group, so that could be a hindrance,” he says.
Meanwhile, plans at McCormick Place call for expanding the garden to other roof sections, eventually reaching upward of three acres.
Several NRA Show exhibitors this year feature options for those with dietary restrictions or who follow specific food lifestyles—gluten-free, allergy-focused, vegetarian, vegan, low-sugar, Kosher, and low-sodium among them. There’s even a specific pavilion, dubbed Alternative Bitestyle, for these companies.
In recent years, plenty of restaurant operators have turned to turkey or chicken as a substitute to pork for bacon or sausage, but few, if any, have chosen beef.
One exhibitor at the NRA Show would like to change that with a product called Schmacon.
Created by Schmaltz Products, a Yiddish-appropriate name for company founder Howard Bender’s delicatessen roots, the patent-pending, ready-to-crisp item was one of the 11 winners of NRA Food & Beverage Innovation Awards this year.
“The original push was going to be for hot dogs or pastrami, but Schmacon just took off,” Bender says. It cooks in eight minutes at 350 degrees and can be grilled in just a few minutes with significantly fewer calories, fat, and sodium than regular bacon.
He’s still magic
The NRA Show’s keynote speaker was basketball star-turned-successful entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and he certainly delivered. His warm, humorous, and educational talk was warmly received by the huge audience.
Johnson is a highly successful operator in various businesses, and that has included restaurants such as Starbucks and TGI Fridays. His keys to success, he says, are to know your customer—he humorously pointed to the differences between urban and suburban guests—as well as reinvesting to grow your businesses and investing in the latest technology.
NRA hopes for Show growth
The NRA is hoping for a third consecutive year of growth for its annual trade show, and there are early indications that could occur.
Last year more than 62,000 people attended or exhibited and there were in excess of 2,100 exhibitors. While the number of attendees this year won’t be known for a while, there are nearly 2,200 exhibitors at both the Restaurant Show and the related International Wine, Spirits & Beer event that kicked off today in more spacious quarters.
By Barney Wolf