When Cynthia James Stewart opened Harvest Grill & Greens to showcase her family’s enterprises seven years ago, she never imagined the commitment to bring the community a true farm-to-table experience would take her on a road trip across most of the West.
BeginningsAfter working and traveling for 28 years, Stewart and her husband, Robert, moved back to Durango so their daughter could grow up with her cousins. In their first year back, Stewart worked at the James Ranch Market selling products her family produced in their individual businesses, including beef, pork, cheese, eggs, raw milk and produce. With the abundance of ingredients available, she had an idea that would support James Ranch’s mission to educate the community about sustainable agriculture and healthy food systems: a restaurant.
“It was one of those things like ‘you don’t know anything about restaurants,’ but I really felt like we needed it,” Stewart said. “I wanted to showcase my family’s products, so we did it. I’m not a chef, but I know that if you have 100 percent fresh ingredients, they do the work.”
Since then, the fast-paced lifestyle of the restaurant business has yet to slow down. Now, on their busiest days, they serve 300 to 400 orders from the small kitchen.
“We’ve been really grateful for the success our community has provided,” Stewart said. “But I’m not having fun doing it out of an 80-square-foot kitchen. We have succeeded, so now we need to grow up, and that means a building.”
The tripIn September, the La Plata County Planning Commission approved a Class II land-use permit for expanded uses on 2.6 acres, including the building of a new 4,800-square-foot structure. With that news, the Stewarts decided to get an RV and take a road trip to restaurants across the West to better understand the brick and mortar business. They had a few goals in mind: visit restaurants with a similar mission to source local ingredients; talk to chefs about kitchen layout, flow and efficiency; learn how to build a culture around the restaurant; and spend quality time with family.
Just as the winter season began, the family took off for two months of driving and dining to accomplish these goals. In total, the family visited 26 restaurants in Colorado, California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Some of their favorites included two stops in Denver: Fruition Restaurant and Mercantile & Provisions. The couple learned the chef owned Fruition Farms Creamery, a 10-acre plot for growing produce and raising hogs, honeybees and sheep for milk. In Boulder, the Stewarts met a couple that owned two restaurants, Black Cat and Bramble & Hare. They also own the 132-acre certified organic farm where they grow produce and raise chickens, turkeys, sheep and pigs for their restaurants.
The biggest takeaways from the other professionals: Keep it simple. No matter where the family stopped, chefs and owners applauded their commitment to source local ingredients, and advised the family to stay the course for the benefit of the customers.
“It’s not just going out to eat,” Stewart said. “It’s a food experience, so we are going to keep doing what we know works. But we might change it up a little here and there.”
The owner wants to keep the feel of the establishment ranch-rustic and family-oriented. She hopes to be open in the winter season Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and plan special events featuring some of the wonderful chefs and farmers the family has met in the past seven years. Stewart said flow of production, organization and storage will take priority in the new build, but she is taking this opportunity to build a space with multiple uses in mind.
“How many people get to start from scratch and build their restaurant?” Stewart said. “This isn’t just a kitchen for the grill; this is a kitchen for generations to come. We wanted to make sure it isn’t just what we need but also has the flexibility to do more, like food demonstrations or classes.”
Originally, they hoped to break ground this spring, but there are still a few kinks to work out before beginning the build, such as planning the kitchen layout.
“We did not find a restaurant that had the layout we needed,” Stewart said. “We found some that had some great ideas, but we still have to come up with our own layout to be efficient and productive.”
Overall, Stewart said finding out how often the term farm-to-table is exploited was one of the more disappointing outcomes of the trip. Some of the places that claimed farm-to-table only bought a few items from local farmers, yet still ordered their proteins from large distributors to keep costs low. All the ingredients that make the meals at Harvest Grill & Greens are grown in the Animas Valley, with the exception of some spices such as peppercorn.
“I was really happy to see that I’m on the extreme side of sourcing local ingredients,” Stewart said. “We are going beyond farm-to-table. We are table-on-the-farm and that makes me feel good because I’m giving our customers the best ingredients possible.”