Splendor in the Grass
The Natural Side of Food Service at United States Botanical Gardens

September 1, 2011 No Comments

Visitors may come to botanic gardens to see some of the finest specimens nature has to offer, but they may also end up staying for the great food being served at these destinations around the country. And while some botanic gardens, like the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, may not have their own dining facilities, Visitor Center Manager Julie Warsowe has created a map of local restaurants in the Boston area to give guests a range of choices all year long.
“The Arboretum, while managed by Harvard,” said Warsowe, “is located about a half-an-hour drive from the Harvard campus, so we recommend spots in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain.”
Similarly, at the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens in Santa Barbara, Calif., guests make do with vending machine items, but no formal restaurant. “We also make available in our gift shop some Odwalla products, such as smoothies and energy bars,” explained Manager Barbara Backlund.
And at the San Diego Botanic Garden, also in Southern California, a small snack stand is available for guests at the Encinitas attraction. “We have various ice cream choices,” said Manager Heather Main, as well as soft pretzels, hot dogs, chips and fruit muffins, and beverages that include espresso, coffee, soft drinks, tea and lemonade.

What’s in a Name?

At the Compton Café at the Morris Arboretum at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, however, a popular restaurant is on site with a menu comprised of locally sourced food. “The menu is designed to limit the time from ordering to order completion,” said Josh Hunter, the manager of the eatery. “Café offerings include a wide variety of food – from hot offerings for adults and child-friendly food to lighter, yet substantial salads.”  
Many of the menu items are named after Arboretum landmarks and well-known people from the region, like the John Morris (a grilled chicken wrap) and the Oak Alee (a smoked turkey panini). “For people on the go, we also offer a variety of healthy snacks and homemade desserts and pastries,” Hunter said.
The dining area, located in the rear of the visitor’s center, is under an elegant tent featuring wooded views and ceiling fans. “The tables are finished broad board cedar rounds that accommodate parties of eight or smaller tables that can seat groups of four,” said Hunter. “The tables are adorned with whimsical birdhouse center pieces and a friendly, inviting sales area that awaits the guests with fresh-baked pastries, ice cold drinks, and a friendly, knowledgeable sales staff. We hope that the scenery, ambiance and menu echo what they have or have yet to encounter in the garden.”  
And for the kids, there’s even an ice cream machine in the picnic grove.
“Our price point is $6 per person for a lunch entrée and approximately $10 per person with a beverage, snack and an entrée,” explained Hunter. “This price point is in keeping with similar locations in the area with comparable food outlets. We maintain our price point by preparing all foods where practical in house – from the pastries to the luncheon meats used in the sandwiches.”
The Arboretum, which enjoys more than 120,000 visitors each year, also stabilizes prices by using local farm sources and wholesalers willing to enter into a contract to ensure both sustainability and cost effectiveness.

From Formal to Casual

Nearby at Longwood Gardens, just outside of Philadelphia, Pa., in Kennett Square, the Director Paul Redman outsources the management of the Terrace Restaurant to Restaurant Associates.
“Longwood chose to partner with Restaurant Associates because of its commitment to quality, excellence and stewardship,” said Redman. “We are dedicated to offering our guests a dining experience that exceeds their expectations.”
Not only is the restaurant green-certified, it includes both full-service fine dining and a café. “Whether dining in the 1906 full-service dining room or in the café, the emphasis is on fresh food sourced locally,” Redman explained. The restaurant also offers seasonal menus featuring fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the region.
“That tomato a guest saw a gardener picking in the morning could very well be the same one on his or her salad at lunch,” said Redman, who explained that the eatery offers a wide selection of food – from hot and cold dishes to salads, soups, children’s meals and desserts. “We understand that some guests want a full meal,” he said, “while others may only want a quick snack before heading back out to tour the gardens, while others may want to linger over a delicious dessert.”
Longwood also hosts special events throughout the year, including Culinature, a dinner experience in the gardens where guests watch as the meal is prepared in the field kitchens. “We also offer Sip & Savor dinners in our dining room,” said Redman, “where we invite local wineries to bring in favorite vintages that our chefs then pair with a special menu. Between the courses, winemakers discuss the characteristics of the wines and the accompanying menu.”
Even inside the venue, with an estimated 950,000 guests each year, glass windows provide guests stunning views of the garden. “We also offer al fresco dining in both our café and 1906 Dining Room as the seasons allow,” said Redman, who admitted that the décor was specially selected to emphasize features of the garden. “For example, the gallery seating area features artwork and photographs by students in our continuing education classes,” he said. “The Founder’s Room décor includes memorabilia and historic documents from the library of our founder Pierre S. du Pont that give insight into his life and the history and development of Longwood.”

A Partnership that Works

The Denver Botanic Gardens also outsources its food service at the Offshoots restaurant to Catering by Design. “The menu for Offshoots was designed specifically for the Denver Botanic Gardens,” said Cade Nagy, owner of Catering by Design in Denver. “The foods served here are as local as possible – and organic.”
Guests have the opportunity to choose from a unique selection, including hand-churned ice cream and sorbets made from fresh herbs from the gardens. Nagy said vegetables grown in the garden are also used in dishes.
Some of these menu items include gourmet grab-and-go sandwiches, wraps and salads. “In addition, we also have gourmet flatbread pizzas, Indian samosas, garden motive cupcakes and an espresso bar,” Nagy said.
The dining area was designed for all ages with reasonable prices in mind. “The dining area at Offshoots was built to give guests a relaxing and comfortable feeling,” said Nagy. “Everywhere we could, we used recycled and natural materials to enhance the space and to keep within the feel of the Denver Botanic Gardens.”
The chairs are made of recycled fibers, and the menu board, trash bins and select decorations are made from natural bamboo, which help accent the concrete pillars inside. “A natural stone wall and water feature finish off the look,” said Nagy. “Counter tops and bars are all made with recycled concrete and glass. With wireless WiFi and world music playing, guests can also relax in the rock wall vignette, lounging on soft, comfortable rattan chairs and pillows.” Guests can use the space not only for dining, but also for meetings.
Most meals at Offshoots average $6. “By preparing all of our items at our central commissary each day, we’re able to control our labor much better than we would in a restaurant environment,” admitted Nagy. “Being able to prepare items from scratch with a large production staff helps us [control the process] and keep it reasonable for all guests, which is very important to the overall guest experience. Some of our items, however, can appear to be higher than the average you would see at a grocery store.”

Ice Cream Is One Example

“Our ice cream is hand-made, premium ice cream,” she said. “It is made with local, fresh ingredients and contains almost double the amount of butterfat than regular, store-bought ice cream. This gives it a much creamier texture and flavor. By including higher quality ingredients and letting the guest know that they are receiving the best, they accept the pricing.”
Last year, that amounted to about 800,000 visitors. -

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