Growing Local Roots

Grown on Site:  Restaurant Garden at the Blue Water Grill

By Alexandra Harvey

 The Grand Rapids restaurant, the Blue Water Grill, is devoted to staying local by growing produce in their own on-site garden. Executive Chef Jeff Kerr and his team turn these items into fresh, locally-based dishes.

Down a busy city street, after passing under street lights, gas stations, a couple of Starbucks, a cell phone store and a shopping complex or two, sits something different.  A verdant flash breaks the urban scenery. Along a lake, a variety of plants, some edible some simply aesthetic, grow in the restaurant garden of the Blue Water Grill , located in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The Blue Water Grill is one example of local restaurants that have taken the plunge and have started growing some of their own produce. The Blue Water Grill restaurant garden has been garnering some attention for successfully following this trend, making headlines in the Grand Rapids Press , Bloomberg Businessweek , and even overseas in The Australian  for expanding its garden from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet in 2010.

The garden, originally overseen by former Executive Chef Michael Patrick McCann, is now under the supervision of Jeff Kerr, the current executive chef at the Blue Water Grill.

“It shows that we’re serious about bringing really good fresh food,” Kerr said of the garden.

Kerr, who was there for the opening of the restaurant, returned in October of last year for what he refers to as his second tour of duty.

Built along the shore of an artificial lake, the land around the Blue Water Grill yields a variety of crops of plants. Kerr lists tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, broom corn, sunflowers, zinnias, and a variety of herbs among the crops grown in the garden.

 Winter wheat, or rye, is then planted in the winter as ground cover to prevent erosion, and is then tilled under in the spring during planting season.

 The zinnias, sunflower, and broom corn were grown to solely to serve decorative purposes, both in and outside of the restaurant.

“Part of our gardens this summer were to beautify the area,” Kerr said. “We had a really big sunflower garden and a lot of zinnias, and we were able to take those flowers to grow, cut, bring inside, and carry throughout the season.”

When the produce is harvested, Kerr and his team of chefs turn them into special menu items like roasted cherry tomato sauce, herb butter, gazpacho and Caprese Salad.

 “Obviously with the space that we have, we don’t have production land,” Kerr said. “But whatever we did use, mostly tomatoes and herbs, we put on the plates and featured in our specials.”

But at first, the special menu items were met with mixed reactions.

“There’s a lot of people in the beginning, maybe 30 percent of the people, who really questioned eating from here,” Kerr said.

Ryder Stagg, a 22-year-old student at Western Michigan University, appreciates the Blue Water Grill’s dedication to serving fresh food.

“It’s definitely very fresh,” Stagg said. “They have a full range of different offerings on what you can get.”

Stagg also cited the fresh seafood, produce from local farmers, and large Michigan wine selection as perks of the restaurant.

“You really do get what you pay for,” Stagg said. “It’s a nice date restaurant.”

But the Kerr said that the employees have to be very careful when using produce from their own garden. Citing food scares such as those surrounding spinach, and more recently, cantaloupe, he underlined the importance of being health conscious in every aspect of gardening.

“It’s one thing to grow a flower and bring it in here, but then to actually have something on the plate; well there’s a reason why we deal with food service. Because food service has to track it,” Kerr said.

But perhaps the most difficult task in gardening is the land itself: The entire site the Blue Water Grill is built on used to be a gravel pit. Kerr acknowledges this as a major factor in limiting what they’re able to grow and produce. Different soils and manures were brought in to transform the land from a gravel pit to a site with the artificial lake and land the Blue Water Grill rests on today.

Bridget Behe , a professor in horticulture at Michigan State University who specializes in consumer and market research, said that restaurants need to plan carefully when putting their gardens together.

“There’s a lot of potential for more restaurants to have gardens,” Behe said. “But with the light and space limitations, they need to stick with high value and really, really unique crops.”

 Behe recommends fresh herbs, like basil, which is expensive and doesn’t ship well, as ideal for restaurant gardens since they don’t take up a lot of time or space, and are nice, fresh compliments to dishes.

But while Behe likes the idea of restaurants putting in their own gardens or greenhouses, she suggests a different solution for restaurants who want fresh, local produce.

“It’d be nice, but it’s not really realistic,” Behe said. “The better angle is to hook restaurants up with local farmers.”

 Going local whenever possible is an idea both Behe and Kerr agree on.  

 When not cooking or working on the garden, Kerr’s duties as executive chef also entail working closely with Sysco, the Blue Water Grill’s prime vendor, and pushing them to bring in more and more local products.

“If you’re driving back down to Kalamazoo and go either way on 131, there’s tons of farms out there,” Kerr said. “And that’s all local produce, sustaining the local economy, which I think is very important.”


Photos by Alex Harvey