Living Proof: Farmer Lee Jones & The Chef’s Garden
Farmer Lee Jones & The Chef’s Garden share their inspiring family story, and how they adapted their business to endure during the 2020 pandemic.
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had all but devastated the restaurant industry. Immediately, The Chef’s Garden, a small produce farm that provided vegetables to some of the most renowned restaurants in the country, felt repercussions.
For over 35 years the Jones family has owned and operated The Chef’s Garden, growing and supplying greens, heirloom produce, herbs, and microgreens to some of the most highly acclaimed chefs and restaurant kitchens around the country. The Joneses were deeply impacted by the sudden end to demand for their products. They knew that reimagining their business was the only solution. “We couldn’t just shut the doors down,” says Bob, Jr. “There were greens that had to be watered. We had to take care of them. We couldn’t just walk away…and let those plants die.” If the farm was to survive, the Jones family knew they had to adapt to fulfill a new need.
Reaching out to chefs with whom they had long, well-established relationships, the Joneses made it a priority to reassure them that they would be supported until they were able to resume as customers and, in an act of goodwill, shipped them boxes of fresh produce. “These restaurants have got a problem. We’re closed down. People need to eat,” says Farmer Lee Jones, who brought to the farm’s leadership team the concept of making boxes of their produce available to consumers across the country. For Farmer Lee, it was a no-brainer: “The pivot to a nationwide home delivery system made sense.” A new business was born, and The Chef’s Garden farm began catering to the home kitchen.
A Legacy of Turning Setbacks into Success
Overcoming unexpected challenges with courage and resilience isn’t new for the family. In the early 1980s, they lost their entire farm to a hailstorm. “It was a disaster,” said Bob, Sr. “So, we started back over again. I kept working. And my feeling is…if you keep working and doing something good for people along the way, then you’ve done what you’re supposed to do on this earth.” With collective resolve, the family moved forward, growing vegetables that they sold at farmer’s markets.
It was at the markets that they were introduced to chefs looking for distinctive vegetables to bring to their restaurant kitchens. Major distributors were unable to provide them with the produce they wanted and, seeing an unmet need, the Joneses recognized an opportunity to fulfill the demand by collaborating as a grower of custom heirloom varieties. They dedicated their farming practice to growing for quality, flavor, and sustainability—a regenerative approach that is a dramatic departure from the farming methods taught by agricultural universities. Learning how to grow for chefs is how they learned the food business. “What was really important to them,” says Bob, Jr., “became important to us. And that’s how we grew The Chef’s Garden.”
As an extension of The Chef’s Garden, The Culinary Vegetable Institute was established 25 years ago as a lab and test kitchen where the farm could study the best growing methods for foods to reach their fullest, most authentic flavor and nutritional potential. Executive Chef Liaison Jamie Simpson leads the institute and stands at the forefront of the business alongside the Joneses. Together, they recognize the great value vegetables will have for chefs. Speaking from experience, Simpson says, “It makes sense for restaurants to spend more time on veg because there’s more margin for them…and moving forward, margin is going to be everything.” This is particularly true now as the economy and restaurant dining slowly recover from the devastating impact of COVID-19.
Flourishing in the Face of a Pandemic
Despite the damage to the food industry caused by COVID-19, Farmer Lee Jones is already beginning to see positive changes as new businesses, new creativity, and new opportunities arise from this new normal. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he says, speaking from experience, “and there has been some real necessity that we’re all living through. But we are going to get through it, we are going to survive, and we’re going to come out the other side and be all the smarter for it.” When asked what others who are faced with similar adversity should do, Farmer Lee and the Jones family each respond with the same conviction: Get up and keep going.
Before his passing in August 2020, Bob, Sr., offered these heartfelt words with a trembling voice and teary eyes: “We have to help each other. It’s the only way we survive. Whatever form that help might take.” Bob took great pride knowing his sons have grown up to be helpers. This continuity is what keeps the farm and family prospering and will live on as part of his great legacy.
As the Jones family can attest, the lessons we learn from adversity are what shape us and give us skills to adapt should crisis strike again. The Chef’s Garden farm continues to succeed because of the Jones family’s grit, resolve, and resourcefulness. They are a testament to tenacity and living proof that perseverance prevails.