When the real estate market gave Channel District developer Ken Stoltenberg lemons, he made tomatoes.
And cucumbers and eggplants and basil.
Those are some of the crops he harvests from his three-quarter acre urban garden along Channelside Drive and Whiting Street in downtown Tampa.
Stoltenberg planned to build a 120-unit high-rise on the site until the housing market crashed and squashed his plans indefinitely. But rather than sell the plot for peanuts or let it sit vacant, he turned it into a garden and sells the produce to local restaurants.
"I grew up in the country in Delaware and we always had a garden,'' said Stoltenberg, who developed the nearby 392-unit Grand Central at Kennedy. "I grow a lot of stuff you don't see in the grocery stores. When it comes right out of the garden, it tastes so much better.''
Stoltenberg is among a growing number of urban pioneers in Tampa who believe fresh produce doesn't have to come from a farm a long drive away. A little ingenuity, and even concrete jungles can become bountiful slivers of green.
A year and a half ago, the Tampa Marriott Waterside converted an unused bar and kitchen building by the pool into an indoor hydroponic garden. A few months later, it set up a rooftop container garden with a rain barrel irrigation system. Combined, the gardens produce most of the lettuce, tomatoes and herbs for the hotel's three restaurants.
Guests find the evidence throughout the menus, from the bruschetta to the mojitos. Many ask for a tour.
"Everybody wants to know where their food comes from these days,'' said Scott Fink, the hotel's food and beverage director.
Waterside Farms is the brainchild of the hotel's culinary supervisor, Aaron Berger, who has hydroponic gardens at his home. He liked the idea of having an organic food source on site and serving produce straight out of a garden."There has been times when it's not even five minutes old when it gets on your plate,'' he said.
Growing its own produce has saved the hotel $1,000 a month in food costs, an amount that's expected to increase as the operation expands. A head of lettuce that might cost $2 from a distributor costs the hotel 7 cents to grow, Berger said.
Terry Riney, owner of the Eleven-twenty Cafe in the Channel District, buys lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers from Stoltenberg's garden for his veggie sandwiches, tacos and other menu items. If he runs out, customers often notice.
"The produce is just so fresh and flavorful. I can't get it from suppliers like that,'' he said. "It's always nice to say this was in the field yesterday.''
Riney likes the personal aspect of buying from a garden steps from his restaurant. If he needs something, he just sends a text and Stoltenberg delivers it pronto.
For eateries, freshness is the biggest draw. Eliminate the transit and processing time, and growers can harvest items ready to eat, rather than days before they mature.
Amy Cadicamo, owner of the Buzz coffee shop and cafe on Harbour Island, likes her lettuce and herbs from a soil-free organic tower garden set up by her front door.
"Whenever we run out, we just go outside and pick it,'' she said.
Matt Sireci started distributing Tampa Garden Towers last fall and has placed a few at South Tampa restaurants, including Boca on Platt Street and the Smoothie King on Swann Avenue.
They don't attract bugs or require a lot of water or maintenance. Every two months or so, a new crop is ripe for the picking.