Finding Minnesota: Taking ‘Locally Grown’ To The Extreme

DULUTH, Minn. (WCCO) — It’s trendy for restaurants to emphasize locally-grown foods on the menu. But one place in northern Minnesota takes it to an extreme.

Duluth Grill, with produce gardens in its parking lot, is an unlikely success story, drawing national attention and $4.7 million in annual sales.

The odds seemed to be against it when it first opened. Duluth Grill is an old Embers Restaurant, located in a rather bleak industrial section off Interstate 35.

A few years ago, owner Tom Hanson tried something different: a new emphasis on locally-grown foods with that fresh-from-the-ground flavor.

“It reminds me of going to my grandpa’s — he had a little garden in south Minneapolis — and pulling out a carrot and eating it as a kid,” Hanson said.

Each weekday, shipments arrive from farms within a 100-mile radius of Duluth. But especially unique are the crops that are much closer – the herbs, rhubarb, zucchini, tomatoes and other plants growing next to the cars in the parking lot.

“We can harvest out of this garden, the way it’s grown right here, I’m sure there’s a good 30 pounds of kale right here,” said Hanson. “It’s been well known that on Sunday night, if we’re running out of product, that we’ve gone out, we’ve picked basil, we’ve picked lettuce, we’ve grabbed tomatoes.”

It’s become a reason for customers like Madi Pierce, 19, to venture into a part of the city that they wouldn’t have visited otherwise.

“I think what it means to Duluth is we have our own thing going here and we’re really proud of it,” she said, “and that’s why it’s so busy all the time.”

A native Frenchman, Francois Medion, is the Urban Garden Manager.

“This is a movement, it’s a world-wide movement,” Medion said. “We’re creating an oasis in the city, so we’re greening the city, making the city a lot more livable, and a lot of people in the neighborhood have just complimented, said ‘Ah, this is so awesome; I just love it.’”

They’ve drawn national attention, with an appearance on The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. A Los Angeles Times blog post highlighted not only their food, but also the fact that they pull this off in such a cold climate.

Hanson’s own backyard now has a greenhouse for year-round growing. It features a 5,000 gallon fish tank where he plans to produce pacu, a South American freshwater fish that he said eats like trout.

“We’ve just set up a solar system for aquaponics, which will be a year-round fish-producing system inside the greenhouse,” he said.

He never envisioned being a champion of urban agriculture, but the customers have responded.

“It wasn’t our first intention,” he said. “Our first intention was to serve good food. But at this point now, I guess we want to kind of capitalize on the attention that it’s getting.”

The restaurant’s parking lot now has 30 young fruit trees that will eventually grow apricots, pears and apples. Their goal is to grow all the fruit they need for a year’s supply of jams.

They do have to buy foods from national distributors when the local supply isn’t available, but local farms do get priority.

Send us your Finding Minnesota ideas here.

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