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Garden of eatin’

The search continues for a restauranteur to inhabit space at the Myriad Botanical Gardens.

Dean Anderson April 24th, 2013

In late 2011, questions surrounded the plan to open a restaurant at the Myriad Botanical Gardens.

By: Shannon Cornman

What type of clientele would a restaurant situated on 17 acres of gardens attract? Would there be too much competition from the yet-to-be built restaurant situated atop Devon tower? What about the glut of dining options located down the street in Bricktown?

Nearly a year and a half later, a 2,000-square-foot restaurant facility with a full kitchen sits empty at the gardens.

And two big questions still loom large: Who will operate the restaurant, and what type of dining concept will it embrace?

Maureen Heffernan, director of Myriad Botanical Gardens, has experience in these matters.

Serving in the same capacity for the 250-acre Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens prior to her arrival in the metro, she saw firsthand the role a restaurant can play in a visitor’s experience.

“We built a lovely little cafe room as part of our visitor’s center,” Heffernan said of the nationally known gardens in Boothbay, Maine. “That was a big part of the guest experience before, after or taking a break. The cafe was part and parcel of the experience for most events.”

Heffernan came on as the new Myriad Gardens director shortly after the Myriad Gardens Foundation had sent out the request for proposals for a restaurant.

It attracted proposals from the Deep Fork Group, owners of Deep Fork Grill, The Wedge Pizzeria, Cafe Nova and others. The foundation tabled the decision indefinitely, as they were hoping for more interest in the space.

“I think [restaurants] add a huge amount to the experience,” Heffernan said. “In Maine, we tried to bring in local produce in season. We had a killer lobster roll. If you can bring in local culture to the experience, I think that’s terrific.”

While the building is empty most of the time, that doesn’t mean it goes unused. Heffernan said it still does a brisk business as a rental for meetings, weddings and parties. In February, the space hosted six events, ranging from corporate meetings to a children’s chocolate class and a sold-out food-lover’s dinner.

“What we’re looking for is flexibility,” Heffernan said. “We would like to have a white tablecloth type of experience, but we also want moms visiting the gardens with kids, to downtown workers at lunchtime. We don’t feel it should be just one thing because our audience is so varied. It’s really not your typical restaurant.”

Jim Tolbert, chairman emeritus of the Myriad Gardens Foundation, said the organization is in a better position to get what it wants out of the space.

“I think the process is going very well right now,” he said. “Now that so many of the unknowns have been resolved ... we’re going back to talk to several people in the community that would be interested. I’d like to have something done by summer. I’m not sure that can be done, but that’s the goal.”

There likely will not be another request for proposals.

“I think it’s critical we find the right operator,” he said.“The advantage we have now is the foundation knows the possible prospects and we can approach them individually. The fact is we can’t make any promises, but I’m encouraged that now is the time to proceed.”

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