Farmer Lee Jones’ The Chef’s Garden
Lee Jones and his family grow specialty ingredients for restaurants in all 50 states and a dozen countries. Here’s how they launched their groundbreaking business.
Farmer Lee Jones’ denim bib overalls, crisp white shirt and red bow tie are his trademark. Literally. He has a registered trademark on the look, and he says he owns 18 identical sets. “I wear this everywhere, every single day,” he says. “At black-tie events, with Martha Stewart and Julia Child, this is what I wear.” The myriad photos on the walls of Jones with celebrity and influential chefs (Stewart and Child included) prove it.
That combination of classic, down-home farm style with a carefully laid-out business plan tells you a lot about Jones. His farm roots are absolutely authentic, and he’s figured out a way to turn them into a world-class success.
Jones is the face of The Chef’s Garden, a sustainable, 350-acre family farm in Huron that provides chefs worldwide with seasonal specialty vegetables, microgreens, herbs and edible flowers. With his parents, Bob and Barbara, and brother, Bobby (a sister is an educator in a neighboring town), the Jones family runs both this endeavor and its offshoot, The Culinary Vegetable Institute in nearby Milan.
The idea for The Chef’s Garden came about in the 1980s, when the Jones family lost their 1,500-acre commercial farm. While large, the farm wasn’t large enough — “we couldn’t get the economy of scale,” Jones says — and a 1982 hailstorm was the turning point. “That hailstorm was the final thing that wiped out the farm.”
Everything, from land to farmhouse to cars, was auctioned off. The family spent the next five years farming 50 rented acres and selling at local farmers markets. At Cleveland’s Coit Road Farmers Market, Jones met Iris Bailin, a French-trained chef (and later food columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland), who was interested not in the squash the farmer was selling that day but in its blossoms. Over time, she managed to convince the family’s patriarch there was a market for specialty products for chefs like her, and The Chef’s Garden was born.
“My father told me, ‘Find every chef you can and figure out what they want, and your brother and I will figure out how to grow it,’ ” Jones recalls.
He realized very quickly that the success or failure of The Chef’s Garden would hang on the relationships he built with chefs, first by knocking on restaurant doors and offering impromptu slideshows of what The Chef’s Garden could potentially grow for them.
“I would get a chef to stop a minute, shine [the projector] on a white wall and show pictures of vegetables that we were considering. They’d say, ‘yes, no, no, yes,’ and I’d write it down and we’d grow it for them.”
Today, the business grows more than 700 different items at any given time (and many of those 700 have multiple stages of growth and uses — like a carrot, which provides both a root and stems — but not all of those products are offered to chefs.
“The mix [of items grown] is constantly changing,” Jones explains. “Twenty percent will evolve off and we won’t grow those any longer.”
The decision of what items to offer (and what not to) is a skillful combination of old-fashioned farming and smart business sense.
“There’s a huge element of research in what The Chef’s Garden grows,” explains Jamie Simpson, executive chef liaison at The Culinary Vegetable Institute. “Let’s say we were growing mustard greens for years and found a new supplier for the seeds. Those seeds need to be grown, tasted and understood. If it doesn’t have the flavor results, it does not move forward.”
The result of all this testing is a level of product specificity that sets The Chef’s Garden apart and is integral to its success.
“We’ll grow over 150 varieties of tomatoes this year and sell maybe 100 of them,” Simpson adds, explaining that the others are used for research. “We try to make it more manageable for a chef who says, ‘I need a really small, high-impact tomato that’s high acid, high moisture and thick skin.’ We can whittle through our notes and find the right one for them.”
The need to constantly learn and teach about what’s being grown is what helped give rise to The Culinary Vegetable Institute. Established almost 20 years ago, the Institute is a gorgeous event space (it can be rented for weddings and events) with a gleaming kitchen that’s the testing ground for what’s grown in The Chef’s Garden. The Jones family’s 160 employees test some of the products.
“Last weekend we tasted 12 varieties of lettuce, seven or eight carrots — cooked and raw — and supplied notes,” Simpson says.
Other testers include the hundreds of chefs The Culinary Vegetable Institute hosts each year, either in groups or individually to engage in what Jones calls “R&R and R&D.” And some of those chefs, in turn, help create special event dinners for the public, which serves as the third group of The Culinary Vegetable Institute’s testers.
“When we do a dinner that’s open to the public, we’re looking for feedback on an idea,” Jones says. “We did a potato dinner, and whoever came to that will never think of a potato in the same way. But we were also able to get immediate feedback on varietals and flavors and textures and the ways varietals can be used.
“A chef might be locked into preparing specific things on a menu [at her restaurant], so this is an opportunity for her to try something completely off the menu and get immediate feedback,” the farmer adds. “We’re not trying to tell a chef to do something, we’re trying to inspire them.”
In return, the chefs inspire Jones. “It’s the chefs who have allowed us to follow our passion for farming,” he says.
That passion is a big business, too. The Chef’s Garden ships to all 50 states and 12 countries, and Jones remains a farmer at heart. In fact, his trademarked look was inspired by the film version of John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.
“Large farms were taking advantage of workers, but as down and broke as they were, they held a Saturday night dance at their camp,” Jones says. “As torn and worn as their clothing was, they wore a clean white shirt and bow tie. They had pride and they stood for something.”
For his part, Jones stands for old-fashioned farming, adding, “We’re constantly trying to get as good as they were 100 years ago.”
Those who work with him see that effort every day. Simpson was a customer of The Chef’s Garden in his previous job, which had him traveling to restaurants all over the world.
“Lee’s got unwavering tenacity,” Simpson says. “He serves as a prep cook for hundreds of restaurants. Look at any dish from any fine dining restaurant in the country, any single one. You’ll see the application of microgreens, petals, flowers — all that came from this insightful place here in the middle of nowhere. Every place is influenced by The Chef’s Garden in some way.”
When asked about his successes, Jones’ response at first sounds like a businessman savvy enough to trademark the very clothes he wears. One quickly realizes though that what’s going on at The Chef’s Garden and its companion The Culinary Vegetable Institute is deeply personal for him.
“I’m one of the richest men you’ll ever meet,” the life-long farmer says, pausing for a moment to get control of his voice, which wavers with emotion. “I’ve gotten to work with my dad every day for 40 years.”
For more information about The Chef’s Garden, visit chefs-garden.com. To learn more about events at The Culinary Vegetable Institute, visit culinaryvegetableinstitute.com.