When Jeff Johnston and George Gastis first took to the noble task of transforming the old Bill’s Auto Service in Englewood into a location bent on bringing the production of food closer to the people consuming it, they had no idea that it would turn into the all-encompassing venture it is today. Originally planned primarily as a production facility, the project morphed into its current iteration gradually and with a great deal of care and civic-mindedness. In mid-December, Grow + Gather opened as an innovative urban farm, greenhouse, market and restaurant that serves food grown on-site, from neighbors in Englewood and from producers within Colorado.
At the heart of the operation is the patented hydroponic system featuring rolling racks used to grow fruits and vegetables vertically. A centrally located seating area connects all constituent parts and features large windows where patrons can look in on the massive grow operation. Currently, the 360 proprietary towers are filled with romaine, chard, kale, basil, bibb lettuce and other leafy greens with plans for strawberries to join the roster next harvest. “In order to make an urban farm work you have to use every cubic foot of the space,” said Johnston. Each growth period will support plants that complement naturally-growing seasonal ingredients. The indoor facility is designed for seven annual harvests and has the capacity to produce roughly the same yield as a two-acre farm.
Neither Johnston nor Gastis expected Grow + Gather to become the hub it is today. Johnston comes from construction while Gastis ran a successful tech company — neither initially had much desire to be in the restaurant business. The duo planned to grow produce for neighboring kitchens and in early talks, the two leaned towards bringing on a restaurant tenant. After their designer — Xan Creative’s Melissa Friday — recommended chef Jeff Schwing it became clear that the possibility of running their own kitchen would add a unique element to the already expanding concept. Schwing — who most recently did a stint at Death and Co. — uses the local ingredients to produce a colorful and affordable menu of healthy takes on toasts, salads, sandwiches, sides and other comfort foods. The dining room is already gaining a substantial buzz, with many diners popping over from neighboring Swedish Medical Center and Craig Hospital. “The loud sibling is the restaurant. The most important part is the community,” smiled Gastis.
Along the dining-room wall, a bright neon sign reads “Humble Fare.” What was once a possible name for the project has shifted more towards a standing mantra — simple, approachable food being the heart of what the kitchen is about. The green romesco toast ($8) comes with toasted seeds, a fried egg and a rotating cast of vibrant edible flowers. The Englewedge ($9) comes with gorgonzola ranch, house-cured bacon, radicchio, fennel, scallion and cured egg. The daily pie ($6) lets the fruit shine, allowing the natural sweetness to sit center stage. The cocktails lean towards the refreshing with drinks like the Grower ($9) — with The Family Jones vodka, Leopold Brothers orange liqueur, lemon, plum and thyme shrub — nicely complementing the bright food. The market serves coffee, breakfast burritos, produce and a variety of local products including Haystack Mountain Cheese, Elevated Mushrooms and Englewood’s own On The Fence Kombucha.
While the notion of healthy dining — especially when presented in such a comprehensive and high-concept way — can come across preachy, Johnston and Gastis have done a good job of keeping Grow + Gather from becoming any kind of soapbox. Gastis — who lives walking distance from the facility — is more interested in creating a lasting legacy for the community than telling people how to eat. That isn’t to say that there won’t be education for those who are interested, the duo plan to use the space for classes and neighborhood meetups. “Maybe we’ll inspire somebody to go plant their own tomato plant,” said Gastis.
Both owners are clearly very grateful for the opportunity to spread a vision that has grown as organically as the cuisine. With the rooftop greenhouse still in the works and a sensory garden to join in the spring, it is clear that Grow + Gather may still develop in directions yet unforeseen.
Grow + Gather is located at 900 East Hampden Ave., Englewood. The market is open Monday – Saturday 6 a.m. – 7 p.m. and Sunday 6 a.m. – 3 p.m. The restaurant is open Monday – Friday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.