As the owner of the Upper King Street sandwich shop Butcher & Bee, Michael Shemtov is fully onboard the locavore food train. Since opening the restaurant in fall of 2011, Shemtov has been serving up gourmet creations made with ingredients from local fishermen and farmers, and he and the staff have even been cultivating a small vegetable garden out back. Now Shemtov is looking into the idea of starting a small urban farm on a half-acre lot across the street.
Shemtov is still hesitant to talk about the specifics, as he is still in the due-diligence phase trying to figure out if his plan is plausible and cost-effective. But he is at least confident enough to have released a rough aerial-view sketch of the farm that he has been working on with Bill Eubanks, creative director at design firm Urban Edge Studio. "It's a little bit more than like a 10-year-old girl talking about her wedding, but it's not quite realized yet," Shemtov says of his plans.
Currently, Shemtov and his crew make it a part of their daily routine to tend several planter beds behind the back door of the restaurant, where they've been growing and harvesting cucumbers, eggplants, peas, squash, mint, basil, and Thai basil. The plan for the farm includes four main crop areas, plus an herb garden, a compost area, and an area for cultivating earthworms. Eubanks says the team has also talked about including beehives on the site. "With Butcher & Bee, it seemed like a no-brainer to me," he says.
If the farm pans out, it will be a team effort. Shemtov says he has been in discussion with city officials, who have been supportive of his idea so far. He has also been talking with another restaurateur about going in with him on the venture, and he is enlisting the help of April Magill, a natural-building expert with Root Down Designs, and Elizabeth Beak, an agriculture consultant with Crop Up who helped him set up the back-door garden at Butcher & Bee. Beak says Shemtov has talked with her before about the idea of terroir — the local flavor of produce, influenced by factors like climate and soil.
"He wants to put some things on the menu that have the story of the place and the terroir — however you pronounce it, I don't know how to pronounce the French stuff — of the people and the place of South Carolina," Beak says.
For now, the site at 677 King St. doesn't look like much. A vacant lot between two overpasses of Highway 17, it features a collapsing chain-link fence, a few strewn piles of litter, and a resilient crop of weeds pushing up through patches of gravel and asphalt. Heavy-metal tests will have to be performed on the soil. The property is co-owned by Steinberg Law Firm and another law firm, Derfner, Altman & Wilborn. Jonathan Altman — a partner at the latter firm — says he'd be glad to see somebody doing something with the land until it gets sold. He made a similar arrangement with land he personally owned at the corner of Bogard Street and Rutledge Avenue, where a group from the College of Charleston set up a community garden known as the Bogarden for about three years until he was finally able to develop the land several months ago.
The law firms originally bought the land at 677 King St. in hopes of building a new office and relocating there, Altman says, but when the economy went south, "we put it on the backburner." Now they're trying to sell the land for $1.9 million, marketing it as a place for an office building. "Even though everything seems to be moving in that direction, it could be a while before something happens on that property," Altman says. "But there's no reason not to do something good with it."
Shemtov, for his part, is keeping his cool. He doesn't get as audibly excited as the people he's been working with when he talks about the potential for a downtown farm. If it is completed, he and his employees will tend it alongside workers associated with Beak. "It's not my personality. I don't really get excited until things happen," Shemtov says. "Two months before Butcher & Bee opened, people were asking me if I was excited, and I told them, 'In my own way.' But I just realize how much work these things are. Work that's enjoyable, but work nonetheless."