Trends & Insights

Spotlight on: urban farms in city hotels

While countryside hotels have long known the attractions of growing their own food for guests, hotels in city centres are now discovering the benefits of kitchen gardens

Hotels surrounded by countryside and vast acres of farmland have the doorstep potential to provide their own home-grown produce for guests. But in recent years, city hotels – where space is at a premium – have realised that they can enhance the guest experience by becoming their own food supplier, even on a small scale.

St Ermin’s Hotel in central London set up a kitchen garden on its roof terrace three years ago, after several years’ success in keeping beehives. Alex Boyd, the hotel’s Head Chef, says: “The garden was just a natural progression in our sustainability side and gives another feature to the hotel. We love it. We build our menus around it. Now we have a little more understanding about what grows and what doesn’t.”

The hotel has managed to squeeze in an orchard of plum, apple and quince trees, along with strawberry and raspberry bushes and a wide range of vegetables, tomatoes and herbs. While St Ermin’s has since employed a gardener to bring expertise, initially it was trial and error as the team discovered what could grow in the changeable London climate. A greenhouse extends the growing season over the winter, when the hotel is still able to provide fresh salad ingredients, and copious fruit harvests mean the hotel can make large supplies of chutneys, purées and mousses.

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Urban kitchen gardens aren’t likely to be a passing fad. Photo: credit to Chris Barbalis, Unsplash

 

Boyd admits it will be some time before the hotel can see any return on investment. “The cost of building it was significant, and I think it would take a very long time to see the food cost saving against the initial investment,” he says. “But it’s not there to become a profit centre. It was there to give inspiration to the chefs, to help with education, just to have a little something extra that the hotel can claim. We’ve got quite an eco-friendly-minded business approach. We recycle as much as we can. It was another thing we could do as a business to say we’re trying to cut down on food miles and we’re using available space and local ingredients.”

This approach to food sustainability is what prompted the Accor group of hotels – which includes Mercure, Pullman, Sofitel, Novotel, Ibis and Fairmont – to launch its Planet 21 Acting Here programme in 2016. Its idea of “positive hospitality” included a focus on food, with the intention of creating 1,000 urban farms in its city hotels by 2020.

A sustainable approach to cuisine

Rebecca Avila, Accor’s Vice-President Communication and Social Corporate Responsibility, Southern Europe, says the objective was surpassed in 2018, with the creation of about 1,056 city garden hotels. “We want to offer our guests a true culinary experience with high-quality, healthy and sustainable food, while contributing to transforming the agricultural model,” she comments. “This is much more important because there is a real awareness among the guests, who have become experienced in gastronomy. They favour healthy, local and responsible food – they have a more global vision of health and demand greater transparency. Besides, our guests feel privileged when eating food from our kitchen gardens.”

Two Accor hotels in the Netherlands were enthusiastic early adopters of the kitchen garden. In 2017, the kitchen team at the Bridge restaurant at Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam decided to set up an urban rooftop garden featuring several garden beds as well as a greenhouse. Its fruits and vegetables not only go into the restaurant but also the staff canteen. At the Mercure Central in The Hague, the hotel was the first Accor in the Netherlands to build a greenhouse. “We use the products in our kitchen garden for lunch buffets,” says General Manager, Rutger Blom. “Our staff and guests enjoy the garden, and it brings us even closer to our guests.”

Avila points to the success of the Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel, which has the largest hotel kitchen garden in Paris. Spreading across 650sq m, the garden produces 500kg of vegetables a year and includes an orchard, a chicken coop and beehives. From the start, the garden was designed to be organic and environmentally friendly. It doesn’t use pesticides or chemical fertilisers, and local nurseries supply compost and plantings.

With the growing awareness of food miles and the importance of sourcing local ingredients, urban kitchen gardens aren’t likely to be a passing fad. “The concept of the restaurant is to use seasonal food, and tying it in with the garden makes a lot of sense,” says St Ermin’s Hotel’s Boyd. “Our guests love it.”

 

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Takeaway
  • Guests are likely to appreciate the experience of eating home-grown produce as the backlash against food miles grows
  • Greenhouses can extend the growing season and broaden the range of produce
  • Expect a period of trial and error to discover what suits the local climate
  • A return on investment is not always an issue with kitchen gardens, as the benefits of the guests’ experience outweigh the cost