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One of Raleigh’s oldest downtown restaurants, the Irregardless Cafe, has long championed the use of local produce on its menu. Now the eatery’s owner wants to localize the production process even more, starting an organic garden in Southwest Raleigh.
Arthur Gordon has run the vegetarian-friendly restaurant on West Morgan Street since 1975. He recently purchased property on Athens Drive as a site for the Well Fed Community Garden, a new side project for his business.
The model is simple: Students working on their agriculture degrees will live in the house and keep up the garden, harvesting the produce for the Irregardless.
“The ultimate goal is to create a model that I bet other farmers would be happy to buy into,” Gordon said. “Local, freshly picked food tastes infinitely better than this stuff that comes from California.”
Gordon found a house that was in disrepair but had a large lot and bought it shortly before a foreclosure. “We’ve taken a blight out of the neighborhood and made it a wholesome property,” he said. “I’m hoping maybe we can make this work for other dilapidated properties.”
Gordon and his wife held an open house for neighbors last week, hoping to answer questions about their plan for the site. But the invitation drew fire on a neighborhood email listserv, with some questioning whether it would lead to other business operations or even be a legal use of a residential lot.
“We need to be cognizant of proper usage of the homes and land around us,” one person wrote. “Were the other neighbors aware of this and do they approve?”
Raleigh planning director Mitchell Silver said gardens are allowed in residential districts – provided there’s a home on the lot and no on-site produce sales. The city is working on rules in its new development code that would allow community gardens on some vacant lots as well.
Gordon says he’ll still seek a special-use permit from the city’s Board of Adjustment before the harvest gets going. Because it’s a new model, he’s expecting some criticism.
“I feel like I have enough credibility and credentials to be the lightning rod for this,” he said. “I’m hoping that I can create the conversation in a positive way.”
But the Well Fed Community Garden differs from the city’s definition of “community garden” and operations such as the Raleigh City Farm. Those will generally provide their harvest to participants in the farming efforts or sell produce as a nonprofit. A few neighbors questioned whether Gordon’s facility should have the community label.
Gordon said he’ll open the garden to anyone who wants to help out, and they’d get any produce left over after the restaurant takes what it needs.
“We want it to be, in a sense, open to the neighborhood,” he said. “You could come over and learn how to farm.”