Entrepreneur-turned-restaurateur George Gastis likens the Englewood area where he located his new eatery and market, Grow & Gather, to an up-and-coming version of Old South Pearl in the Platt Park neighborhood that he used to call home. Like that strip, this stretch has plenty of dining options, including established restaurants — Pino's Place, Undici and Aung's Bangkok Cafe — along with such hot newcomers as Cochino Taco and Cherry Hills Sushi Co. But Grow & Gather offers a little something extra.
Gastis has worn many hats since he sold his tech and marketing company in order to follow a different career path as urban farmer, beekeeper, even visionary. His new venture, which opened in mid-December, encompasses a restaurant called The Feedery, a market with both housemade and local goods, an indoor hydroponic garden sprouting seven harvests of herbs and greens a year, a rooftop greenhouse that will soon be burgeoning with tomatoes and other produce, and a community center where locals can have meetings or book event space for dinners, parties and other gatherings.
When Gastis and his business partner, Jeff Johnston, purchased the former Bill's Auto Service building (originally owned by Bill Engel) at 900 East Hampden Avenue in 2016, their original plan was to turn it into an eco-friendly link in the food-supply chain. "We bought it initially with the idea of growing food for other restaurants," he explains.
The plan soon evolved to include the restaurant and market, but "the heart and soul is the farming operation," Gastis adds. In addition to the rooftop greenhouse and the hydroponic setup, which can produce as much lettuce, kale and other greens and herbs as 2.5 acres of land in the course of a year, the restaurateur also maintains a quarter-acre farm at his nearby home in order to accommodate more produce such as squash, root vegetables and chiles. And then there are his beehives, which he plans to increase from two to five or six and relocate from the farm to Grow & Gather's rooftop.
The Feedery is currently open for breakfast and lunch, but even as service winds down at mid-afternoon on a weekday, tables of employees from Swedish Medical Center and Craig Hospital across the street are finishing up late lunches, and a few patrons are taking advantage of a happy hour that runs until the place closes at 5 p.m. Right now, breakfast starts at 9 a.m. (8 a.m. on the weekends), which seems late for the area and its many health-service workers, but Grow & Gather has its own coffee bar and grab-and-go counter that opens at 6:30 a.m. Customers can pick up coffee made with beans roasted by Middle State, a breakfast burrito or a bottled kombucha at this spot. The market also boasts bulk bean bins; a small produce cooler; shelves stocked with pickles, hot sauce and other preserves (some made by Grow & Gather); and various other home and pantry items, so later in the day you could buy yourself an apron from Valentich Goods (a Denver purveyor), a ceramic fruit bowl from Rocco Pottery or some canning equipment for your own kitchen.
In the Feedery's kitchen, chef Jeff Schwing (most recently of Death & Co.) balances homey fare such as veggie pot pies, winter oats, chicken sandwiches and hearty salads with small plates like a happy-hour dish of miso cod and pork belly (Gastis calls it the Cali-rado surf and turf). The goal is to obtain the majority of menu ingredients from local and regional producers, he says, and to note on the menu any outside sources (like that California black cod).
Local, sustainable and farm-fresh are all buzzwords in modern restaurants, but those words guide the growing Grow & Gather: The rooftop will soon be overflowing in green as herbs and decorative plants spill over from rampart planters; solar panels are being added over the HVAC system to offset a good percentage of the building's energy usage; and there will also be a gray-water collection system on the roof. Inside the restaurant, the design, by Xan Creative, incorporates reclaimed elements — such as wooden produce crates above the bar — while paying subtle homage to the building's former life (especially in banquettes that resemble pickup truck seats).
Gastis is aware that all this could come at a cost to customers. But he also wants to keep menu prices affordable. "This is not just one more place that's only available to people with a lot of money," he notes. So as of mid-January, the price of that pot pie — a healthy serving for most — was $8, sandwiches were all $9, and house cocktails, often $12 to $15 in other parts of town, all rang in at $9. And while prices could shift with a current menu change, Gastis says that some will go up and others will go down, keeping the overall balance the same.
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The diversity of the area has presented a challenge: Cherry Hills Village is just a stone's throw away, but there are working-class neighborhoods closer to Broadway. "We've been obsessed with making this place accessible to everyone," Gastis explains. "There are a lot of invisible fences around here, but we want to bring everyone together."
That shows in his employment strategy, too. His farm manager, Margie Frey, is in her mid-sixties and has accumulated years of experience at nurseries, farms and other horticultural jobs. But younger employees who express interest in learning more are also welcome to earn money working on the farm or in the greenhouse and hydroponics lab. Gastis has servers who already plan to learn beekeeping on the job and who supplement their tipped income by assisting Frey in growing greens and herbs.
"We eventually want to add a farmers' market outside," Gastis adds. "Overall, we're just looking for more ways for people to put down their phones and connect with their neighbors."
The message is clear: He'll do the growing if Englewood does the gathering.
Grow & Gather and The Feedery are located at 900 East Hampden Avenue in Englewood; call 303-632-7637 or visit growgather.com for more details.