By Heidi Smith
The first time some people walk into Garden to Gourmet, they start stuttering. “You see in their eyes that they’re kind of stunned,” says Patrick Leblanc, the cafe’s manager. “The complex outside is pretty drab and generic, but when you open this door, there’s a whole new world in here. That ‘wow’ feeling is what I want people to have.”
Since opening at the end of 2014, the restaurant has been rapidly transitioning from Yelm’s best kept secret to a destination spot for both former urbanites longing for a touch of fine dining and locals who care about where their meals come from. Leblanc believes that the ‘wow’ factor is an appreciation of three characteristics rarely found in small rural town eateries: transparency, artistry and an emphasis on fresh, local food.
“Transparency is one of our big values,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons it’s an open kitchen concept where you can actually see the action, see what we’re doing. We’re not secretly putting in MSG on the side.” Chef Daniel Juarez adds, “We take that very seriously.” The open kitchen allows customers to feel good about what they’re eating, he says, because they can literally see where it came from.
Where it came from is often right down the road. “I prefer dealing with people directly,” says Leblanc. “I have owners delivering chicken here that they butchered two days before, and they’re fifteen miles away.” Taking the extra time to find local sources for everything from meat and eggs to produce and paper products is worth it, he says. “Where do I invest my money? Let’s help this community by where I put my dollars.”
Juarez says using fresh, local ingredients keeps him inspired to “see what I can do for the health and well-being” of everyone who comes through the door.
Customers appreciate that level of dedication. “Patrick, Daniel, and the crew consistently blow me away with their dishes,” says Andrew Wright, a videographer who moved to Yelm from the San Francisco Bay Area ten years ago. “We’ve really been missing a good sit-down, hangout restaurant with top-quality, freshly prepared meals – nothing frozen, nothing packaged.” Renee Webb maintains it’s the quality, and taste of the food along with the ambiance that make her a regular customer.
Part of that ambiance is the artistry Leblanc referred to. “The plating is very important,” he explains. “Let’s do this with taste. It’s not just slapping food on a plate and giving it to you, it’s actually a little work of art. It’s all tied together with the environment.” Most restaurants in his price range ($10 – $14 a plate) don’t take the time to add those extra touches, he says.
Both Leblanc and Juarez have backgrounds in the food industry. Juarez trained under Virginia Dalbeck, runner-up on season two of the reality show Hell’s Kitchen and co-owner of the famous Cork & Pig Tavern in Texas. “That lady was a mentor to me. She taught me how to make everything from scratch, how to make your own vinaigrettes, your own sausage,” he says. “If you want customers to come back, you do it right.”
Leblanc started out running nature programs for kids. “I would have them for three or four days. Guess who the cook was?” he laughs. “I would create menus that were not hot dogs and hamburgers. For example, the pizza had a mountain of vegetables on it.” After eight hours in the woods with all kinds of activities, “Sure enough, the kids ate everything,” he says. “At that moment, I knew that I loved cooking.”
He spent a few years as a line cook but upon moving to Washington State, switched to the construction industry for fifteen years. During a lull in 2013, he took a business planning class through the Thurston Economic Development Council and re-examined his passion for healthy food. Garden to Gourmet was born, with help from a small team of investors.
Although the restaurant is still in its beginning stages, Leblanc has big dreams for its potential impact down the road. “I would love to see the Garden to Gourmet model envelop little towns, not big cities,” he says. “A cafe can become a hub of showing that your food does not only come on a Styrofoam plate from a grocery store. There’s somebody behind it, and he’s probably your neighbor. If you pay him good money, that’s just going to bring money back to the community.”
In the meantime, locals appreciate the unique value the cafe brings to Yelm. “I love having a place where I can hang out for an hour, or two, or three while enjoying a coffee, a wonderful meal, and getting some work done either online or in person,” says Wright. “The environment is warm and comfortable, the internet is fast, and the food is fantastic. There really isn’t anywhere else in Yelm that offers that combination.”
9144 Burnett Rd SE #A-101
Yelm, WA 98597
Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Friday and Saturday from 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Sunday from 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Closed on Tuesday