At a Chicago Embassy Suites, Sky Garden is as Local as It Gets

CHICAGO—The hotel industry has embraced the farm-to-table movement, so much so, it’s no longer a novel idea but a practical way to source fresh ingredients locally and strengthen the guest’s connection to the land. From an onsite rooftop garden to a vertical hydroponic farm, it’s as local as local food gets.

The Embassy Suites by Hilton Chicago Downtown Magnificent Mile is taking the concept a step further by getting the food up close and personal with guests. The 455-all-suite hotel has turned its atrium into a greenhouse of sorts, to herald the arrival of its new Sky Garden and herb collection. Care to pinch a sprig of mint as you wheel your bags through the atrium? The hotel calls it a “direct to fork” approach.

“We have an amazing atrium with loads of natural light; it is one of the most striking features of the hotel. We were crafting a marketing message that would take that into account in our guest interactions,” said Mike Rogers, director of sales & marketing for the hotel. Simultaneously, General Manager Konstantine Drosos attended a meeting on repurposing vacant buildings for urban farming. “When we put our heads together, we realized these were complementary concepts and could become something of an urban greenhouse, creating an opportunity for our guests to interact with a green space 365 days a year,” Rogers said. “Coinciding with our discussions on our greenhouse idea, we happened to be working with a client who does exactly this sort of thing—DIRTT Environmental Solutions. We approached them about feasibility, took a walk around their showroom and it took off from there.”

The Sky Garden was built by DIRTT Environmental Solutions, a provider specializing in prefabricated interior design components. DIRTT stands for “Do It Right This Time.” The company puts a strong focus on supporting the environment and people, as much as functional design, noted Rogers. The construction was customized to the hotel’s needs and specs and contains largely modular components, providing opportunities to evolve the space to keep it relevant.

“We wanted the Sky Garden to be a touchpoint, something for everyone to celebrate as they see fit rather than forcing it on our guests. For our chefs, this means herb-centric banquet menus and herb-focused enhancements to our cooked-to-order breakfast and evening reception,” he said. “While seasonality influences the primary components of our menus, the herbs themselves can be a consistent component adapted seasonally. For example, rosemary and watermelon agua fresca in summer can give way to rosemary biscuits in the winter.”

Unlike outdoor gardens, which are seasonal in many climates, the indoor Sky Garden promises to be a year round opportunity to engage with guests.

“There are two distinct trends that influenced this project. First, micro-sourcing is everywhere. We wanted to try to cut out the middle man and instead of farm-to-table, came up with a way to connect direct-to-fork across multiple touchpoints that fit within the Embassy Suites Brand Pillars. This presented opportunities with both our evening reception and our cooked-to-order breakfast,” he said. “Second, while there is an almost instinctual desire to eat ‘al fresco,’ the other trend we were keying on is the rooftop garden. In Chicago, these gardens are prevalent, but are also often inaccessible to guests and only in bloom for part of the year. The Sky Garden allows us to repurpose the atrium in a way that keeps it activated 365 days a year—come rain, snow, sleet or shine.”

Training associates how to share the Sky Garden with guests varies by department, with each group getting involved in a way that helps to connect the dots. Team gatherings were hosted in the atrium for sales, catering, concierge and culinary teams to ensure operational teams were involved and experienced the herbs, food and beverage. “To help take that story home—literally—and make it part of people’s lives, we gave out basil seeds to our housekeeping team. Our mantra to our clients and colleagues is to ‘cultivate your senses,’” Rogers said.

It’s not uncommon for a staff member to tear off pieces of mint or basil to highlight the smell and experience of the Sky Garden, which is there to activate all of the senses during a visit.

“We discourage actually eating the herbs directly, as they have not been washed or treated for consumption,” he said. “The fixture is permanent and we strategically located the herbs in the top two rows of the wall to ensure our younger guests wouldn’t be too tempted to get into things.”

A courtyard of faux bamboo in the hotel’s atrium has been turned into a real garden, but the story branches out in many directions from there.

“Whether it is the F&B experience onsite, a recipe to take home, or the DIY herb planters we hand out to our VIPs as gifts, there are so many ways to continue the story,” he said. “Philosophically, I have always felt herbs and the hospitality industry are a natural fit; the same way herbs enhance a dish, the right hotel team enhances people’s special moments, be it a wedding, vacation, key business meeting or any number of things. The Sky Garden is the embodiment of what we do at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Chicago Downtown Magnificent Mile.”