Midtown Raleigh News

Irregardless Cafe owners get OK for community garden

Jenn Sandford Johnson picks mushrooms with her 3-year-old daughter, Jude, in March at the Well Fed Community Garden.
Jenn Sandford Johnson picks mushrooms with her 3-year-old daughter, Jude, in March at the Well Fed Community Garden. ccampbell@newsobserver.com

Thanks to new zoning rules that took effect in September, the owners of the Irregardless Cafe got a green light Monday to operate a community garden in southwest Raleigh.

Arthur and Anya Gordon will use much of the produce in their venerable Morgan Street restaurant, but they’ll also invite volunteers to help out and take home a share of the harvest.

The Gordons first sought permission in March to garden on the Athens Drive property, but the plan was rejected by the city’s board of adjustment because the regulations then didn’t allow for large-scale gardening in a residential neighborhood.

The city’s new zoning code is less restrictive of community gardens, and the same board voted 4-1 Monday to grant the permit. “We’re before you hoping to pioneer this new use” in a residential neighborhood, said the Gordons’ attorney, Andy Petesch.

The Well Fed Community Garden will be managed by an agriculture student at Central Carolina Community College, who lives on the property with her family. The garden will be open to volunteers at least once a week, and at least 20 percent of the harvest will go to volunteers or be donated to charity. The garden manager will teach volunteers about organic growing techniques.

“That is the real benefit to this model: it minimizes the potential for it to become derelict and ignored over time, which is one of the issues with community gardens,” Petesch said.

But board of adjustment member Ted Shear took issue with the plan to send 80 percent of the harvest to the Irregardless. “I see a commercial operation in a residential district, pure and simple,” he said before casting the lone vote against the permit.

Shear said he’s skeptical that volunteers will sign up, given that several community gardens nearby provide all of their produce to volunteers and charities. “These volunteers are in service of a corporation,” he said. “People don’t volunteer to do that – they just don’t.”

The Well Fed Community Garden won’t be the first volunteer-run operation to sell food to restaurants. The Raleigh City Farm near downtown is a nonprofit, but it covers costs by selling much of what it produces.

Petesch said the instruction from a trained farmer will set the operation apart from many other community gardens. “I believe that this is a solid concept that should be allowed to go forward,” he said.

To make sure the garden is attractive from the street, the Gordons have put in decorative plants. They’ll also be adding a greenhouse-style structure, and the city is requiring compost practices that won’t attract rodents. Because this is the first permit under the new garden rules, the Gordons will have to report their progress to the board of adjustment in a year.

If the Gordons are successful in building a community garden while delivering fresh food to their customers, other restaurants could follow suit. The Irregardless has been a trend-setter in Raleigh for decades, serving vegetarian cuisine and going smoke-free long before most competitors.