Garden centre’s restaurant expansion is the final link in a local food chain
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015
A Norfolk garden centre has undergone a £500,000 expansion to complete its position as the hub of a local food chain – now incorporating the growing, selling and cooking of home-grown produce.
Green Pastures Plant Centre and Farm Shop at Bergh Apton, south of Norwich, is owned by James Debbage and his partner Michelle Evans.
The couple demolished their tiny 60sq ft shop in the autumn and replaced it with a 460sq ft timber-framed building.
And the latest phase of the redevelopment has opened this month in the shape of a new restaurant, aptly named The Gardener's Kitchen, which builds on the close relationship between the garden centre, its farm shop and the Debbage family farm down the road at Alpington.
The chefs make homemade specials every day, championing Norfolk delicacies and accenting seasonal produce – and a mainstay of the menu will be the salads, with up to 40 varieties of leaves, herbs and edible flowers.
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Many of the ingredients are either grown on site, or at the Debbages' farm, or supplied by a network of Norfolk producers
Mr Debbage said the restaurant had created an extra 15 jobs, bringing a year-round commercial addition to the business, as well as giving customers the choice of growing their own food, buying local produce, or eating home-grown dishes – all with the purest of provenances.
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'We clearly needed to make ourselves more of an all-year-round proposition, and an all-weather proposition,' he said. 'With so much fresh, home-grown and locally-grown produce at our disposal it seemed obvious to create the new restaurant around this.
'We are coming at food from all these different angles now. We can get people to grow their own and we can teach them about the food they eat as well as where it comes from.
'People expect to be able to dine at a garden centre these days. It is seen as something of a leisure experience. There are now a lot of people who prefer the ambience of a garden centre rather than dining at a pub. We needed to introduce that to our garden centre, or we would have been at a disadvantage to everyone else.'
Mr Debbage's family farm grows a varied range of salads, sprouts, broccoli, leeks, pumpkins, squashes, asparagus and rhubarb, but Green Pastures also buys from half a dozen other Norfolk growers including Paul Bloomfield, also at neighbouring Alpington, who supplies rhubarb, broccoli, cabbage, kale, parsley and coriander.
He said: 'There used to be 10 growers in the village, and now there are just two. So this does make a difference. I am only half a mile down the road, so if James rings me up in the morning because he needs something, it can be here within half an hour.'
Green Pastures was established in 1985 by Alwyn and Rita Evans, and began its life as a small plant nursery. When they decided to retire in 2009, their daughter Michelle bought the site with her partner James Debbage, formally manager of Notcutts Garden Centre in Norwich.
It included a farm shop which focused on locally-sourced foods, so Mr Debbage began producing homegrown crops, including some which were difficult to find on supermarket shelves.
'I grow things which you cannot just go and find elsewhere,' he said. 'I grow a cherry tomato called Sungold which is gorgeous, but it is not grown commercially. You don't find it in supermarket, but I grow it because it makes a fantastic product for people to eat.
'I am not worried about yields or all the other things that commercial growers are worried about. I just want something that's really tasty and really different – that is what will make the meals in the restaurant unique.'
Whilst the farm shop's popularity blossomed, the garden centre's fate was dictated by the weather so, after two extremely harsh winters and spring seasons, Mr Debbage said it was clear that the business needed to take action to sustain sales regardless of seasonal factors.
The new build was also undertaken with a strong 'local' ethos, with nearly all the construction work carried out by Norfolk-based firms, and half of the labour hours estimated to have been worked by tradesmen from the same village or the village next door.