Room to Grow

Stephen Devries

Sixty shrubs bearing edible fruit, an orchard of 6-foot-tall fruit trees, and a 900-square-foot vegetable garden fill the menu at Chef David Bancroft’s Acre with homegrown, organic fare.

When the Auburn Tigers shocked football fans last season with their last-minute field goal return and touchdown to beat rival Alabama, the quaint Alabama town celebrated with the rest of the viewing public. And David Bancroft, chef/owner of his less-than-year-old Acre restaurant, fed them—even Chef David Chang visiting from New York City—very well.

Auburn has much more than its university and sports programs. Though relatively small, comprising 40 square miles and barely more than 55,000 people, the charming eastern Alabama city boasts miles of fruit orchards, farms, and gorgeous flower-filled terrain. It’s also quietly home to some of the country’s most promising chefs and farmers.

Take Bancroft, a San Antonio native who made his home in Auburn. After earning a marketing degree from Auburn University and meeting his wife, Chef Bancroft ditched the business world to cook at Amsterdam Café—which has seen a handful of chefs go on to earn accolades and James Beard nominations. There, he implemented the restaurant’s farm-to-table program six years ago by planting an herb and vegetable garden on an acre of land, a move that would serve as the inspiration for his first restaurant.

When scouting locations for Acre, Bancroft scrapped his initial plan to renovate an old farmhouse sitting on another plot of open land because of strict requirements from wetland conservationists. But when a piece of property near downtown Auburn dropped dramatically in price, the chef realized he’d found something better than the old farmhouse: This property had an acre of ready-for-planting Alabama red clay soil and some fun traditions nearby. Each time the Auburn Tigers win a football championship, which has been often in the last decade, the town tee-pees the trees at Toomer’s Corner just two blocks away. He knew he’d found his site.

With the help of a local developer and designer, he built the 170-seat restaurant from the ground up to resemble an English Tudor home. Though city regulations require a certain number of flower shrubs outside buildings, Chef Bancroft chose to plant upward of 60 edible fruit shrubs instead. Bancroft also replanted many fruit trees from his brother’s farm. His brother, a fruit-tree farmer with a horticulture degree from Auburn, taught Bancroft how to keep the trees growing in his own orchard.

Bancroft knows the benefits of an onsite farm. His garden at Amsterdam Café “gave us better control over our finances and labor costs, and we were able to expand to 60 more seats,” he says. “We produced so many vegetables I called other restaurant chefs to come over with a cooler, and we started running a farmer’s market out of our parking lot on Saturday mornings.” In the six years Chef Bancroft helmed the kitchen at Amsterdam Café, annual revenues shot up from $1.5 million to $2.6 million, thanks in large part to the farm-fresh focus.


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