At first, the effect is incongruous—like seeing puppies for sale in a bookstore. Replacing a full row of booths inside Neo Burrito, an army of potted tomato plants now spreads its leaves under the spaceship glow of a hydroponics table.
It’s as though early May’s funnel cloud had swept up part of a garden center and plunked it down inside the popular Patton Square Plaza restaurant.
Zak Yancey, a former partner in the local Urban Burrito minichain, unveiled the retooled business back in January, upgrading menu items and introducing beer from the local Pisgah and French Broad breweries. But the all-organic plants lining Neo Burrito’s windowsills and walls symbolize an initiative that goes way beyond keeping up with the Cali-cuisine crowd.
“We are taking a leadership position,” says Yancey, a young man as unwaveringly intense as a 400-watt grow light. Where before the tasty tomatillo salsa might have been the greenest thing about the place, the restaurant’s environmental stance is now loud and proud.
“You can’t go green overnight,” he admits. “But we have taken the first essential steps, cutting back and conserving wherever we can. We are buying compostable products—for instance, cups and napkins. We hand-sort our trash. Leftover food is composted, and every nonfood item is recycled.”
The plants were part of this approach from the beginning, says Yancey. And selling them is a sort of long-haul fundraiser: He hopes to raise enough money to incrementally outfit the restaurant with a comprehensive solar-energy system.
He’s offering a plant variety as ambitious as his overall goals. Customers who come in for a wrap or quesadilla can also take home starters of basil, cilantro, parsley, dill, oregano, marjoram, savory, thyme, rosemary, sage, lettuce (of several varieties), spinach, turnip greens, giant sunflowers, watermelons, cantaloupes, pumpkins, loofah gourds, beans, peas, chives, poppies and a seemingly endless variety of tomatoes—all raised hydroponically on-site, or at Yancey’s house, or in the 10-by-20-foot raised bed he built behind the restaurant.
“I realize it’s an energy-negative situation right now,” says the entrepreneur, referring to the prohibitive cost of hydroponics lighting combined with his low retail yield (all the plants are priced at $1). “But it still promotes environmental consciousness, as well as conscientiousness. In the big scope, if you grow a vegetable in-house, you’re still saving the transportation cost of importing foreign vegetables,” notes Yancey. Plus, naturally, you’re getting a superior product.
“People are going to see what we’re doing, and they’ll see that they can duplicate the effort at home,” he explains, adding that there’s no need to buy pricey ready-made hydroponics equipment. “People think they have to have this or that name brand, but we can show them that they can build what they need using simple supplies they can pick up at Lowe’s.” Beyond leading by example, the energetic restaurateur has a side business, helping people build their own gardens, whether inside or in raised beds outdoors, “no matter how small their space is.”
Back at Neo Burrito, meanwhile, Yancey has begun expediting his solar goals by contributing half of all beer sales to the cause. And once his jalapeño peppers mature, they’ll go into the restaurant’s burritos alongside the on-site, hydroponic cilantro and basil and the raised-bed tomatoes from out back—completing the cycle from germination to digestion.
“We have the ability to influence people in a good way,” says Yancey. “What we’re doing promotes interaction; people ask about it. Even if they don’t buy a plant, they may go home and grow one—or grow 20.
“One thing I’ve noticed,” he continues, “is that when you’re taking care of plants, your whole life changes. You’re thinking about the growing process, about the plant’s health and well-being. It’s a really important thing to do.
“Even if you’re only thinking about one little plant, if enough people start doing that, it can impact thousands of lives.”
[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.]