Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In The Zone: Zone 9 Tropicals

Growing up in Louisiana, Wayne DuPont lived with a mom and two sisters who loved plants. He was surrounded by the houseplants they would grow and grew to love plants as well. After his sisters left home, he took on their roles of resident plant grower, learning the many lessons it takes to successfully propagate and grow plants. His first lesson in household horticulture came along with his first "greenhouse," his sisters' unused doll house. Without enough light, his plants died. Lesson learned.

Around the 8th grade, DuPont's interest in engineering (he's now a pipeline engineer) started to surface, and he once again decided he needed to engineer a greenhouse. A real one. Again, at the age of 13, he learned a valuable lesson: 7' is not enough height to manage temperature in a green house. Plants- fried. Lesson- learned.

For the next few years, DuPont would continue to tinker with house plants and dabble in propagation, the process of creating new plants from seeds, cuttings, bulbs, and other plant parts. When he went off to college, he got ... busy... and kept a couple houseplants but generally left the cultivation hobby behind.

A variety of tropicals in different stages of growth in the "propagation room."

In 1990, Wayne DuPont bought an original bungalow at 1015 Arlington in the Houston Heights neighborhood. The house had your usual St Augustine front yard. The back yard was "largely empty, low lying, and flood prone." There were a few trash trees and a long driveway along the south side of the house. With space to use, the itch to work with plants resurfaced. He used the back of the long driveway to build a greenhouse; this time, one that was functional for real cultivation. DuPont started working with tropical plants, suited to the heat and humidity of Houston. He collected different plants and propagated them, soon filling up his greenhouse. And then outgrowing it. He was good at what he was doing, and his hobby had become very successful, a bit more than he needed for himself. DuPont figured he should move some of the plants out so he could continue growing more. He started Zone 9 Tropicals as a way to do this, and maybe make some money to support the habit, plus share wonderful, unique plants with others who enjoy them. DuPont started offering his plants online at Zone9Tropicals.com and quietly hosting "open garden days" 2 weekends a month at his Arlington Street home. 

The back of the main greenhouse
When you walk under the sun-faded Zone 9 banner, it's hard to imagine what you're going to see. A narrow driveway has been transformed in a greenhouse bursting with amazing plants, many taller than an average man. Rows and rows and rows of smaller pots cover shelves. Pots sit on pedestals and the ground. It is hot and damp and vivid green and amazing flowers. As you reach the back side of the greenhouse, you might think that's it. After all, it's amazing enough. A doorway appears and leads to another green house, full of smaller plant rooms, some for shopping, other for propagation, and a dry room for certain varieties of plants that need a slightly different climate. Zone 9's administrator Randy Judd has noticed locals love exploring these nooks. The small rooms have a "certain Heights character," says Judd. While Zone 9 continues to have strong internet sales, local sales have started to surpass online receipts. 

Plant lovers benefit from stopping by the greenhouse. Because it's labor intensive to keep plants at an appropriate size for shipping and, because there are additional steps that must be taken to mail a plant, the cost of the process is added to the price of the plant, plus the cost to ship. Locally, shoppers get lower prices and more variety. DuPont is proud of the unique selection of plants he can offer thanks to his independent propagation and growing. Larger, local nurseries and local suppliers make their money selling bedding plants, so it's not in their best interest to sell tropicals. Roughly 75% of what DuPont sells is unique to Zone 9, not for profit but for the sheer pleasure of growing and owning these varieties of plants. DuPont knows that "people care that it's local." They appreciate that the plants are well cared for and "get excited to have the one [plant] they want that they can't find elsewhere."

If you are interested in tropicals or plants different from what you've seen at the bigger nurseries, you can pre-shop on the website, keeping in mind that your local price will be lower. There are also a number of plants that aren't offered on line, i.e. items that can't be kept in small pots or generally wouldn't ship well. A visit during open garden weekends will allow you to browse a greater variety, including tropical fruit trees and spice plants.

As Zone 9 Tropicals has gained a strong, local following, Wayne DuPont has figured out that he wants to do more. His love of plants is bigger than his residential yard on Arlington. DuPont and Judd, the admin, are excited to have purchased six acres in the nearby Independence Heights neighborhood. They are planning multiple greenhouses and much more room. As a full nursery, they'll also be able to be open regular hours. 

Until then, you can still visit Zone 9 Tropicals on Arlington Street and see what they have to suit your plant fancy. They are open the 1st and 3rd weekend of month during the growing season; Saturdays 9am -5pm, Sundays 1pm-5pm (although Sundays are packing/shipping days so you might catch them there on off weekends, too).

Zone 9 Tropicals
1015 Arlington (parking on street)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Zelko Bistro Is [Probably Not] Leaving The Building

UPDATE (4:07 pm) Well, this was a complicated and crazy morning. Below you will find the account of my conversation with the leasing agent from Berkshire Hathaway. However, this afternoon Zelko posted messages on both Facebook and Twitter, claiming they are in negotiations but plan to stay in the 11th Street location. 

Some theories involve the property owners putting out the sign as a last ditch effort to bring the negotiations to an end and get a lease signed. Could be... In any case, I think the neighborhood will be very happy to see one of our favorite restaurants stay open for business. I am sure that, in the melee Chef Zelko was able to see how many people support and love her restaurant. I would be willing to bet a new wave of business is coming her way as she has been catapulted back in to the neighborhood consciousness in a big way. Maybe that was also a plan? Ha! Who knows, but hopefully we can all enjoy her comforting food in that unique and lovely space for a long time to come. 

This morning I posted and tweeted this picture of Zelko Bistro with a  "For Lease" sign in front. After many retweets and many Facebook comments speculating about what's going on, I decided to try to get to the bottom of it myself.

A call to the restaurant was answered by a pretty concerned employee, who assured me they were open. His voice told me he was confused and probably a lot nervous. He had no idea what the sign meant. His confusion regarding the issue was such that I literally pulled up the photo and triple checked that I had the right building.

Next I called the number on the sign. Mike Huff, a Realtor from Berkshire Hathaway right down the street, returned my call immediately. I had a pleasant and informative chat with him, and he assured me the building is for lease. Zelko will be moving out. He doesn't know when and can't disclose much about why, but whether they close or re-locate is uncertain (although there are additional, unsubstantiated claims that they will relocate. Yay!). Either way, they will no longer be housed in the gorgeous bungalow at 705 E 11th.

According to Huff, who represents the property owners, they have been in negotiations with Jamie Zelko for at least six months. Huff says that the owners have gone to great lengths to keep Zelko Bistro in the building but negotiations broke down and became "one sided." While I am sure there is a second side to the story, this is all we have right now.

Currently, the sign has been taken down because of a call to Huff from the restaurant. There have been many calls interested in the space, even in the short time it was posted, Huff said. So, while Zelko seems to be open for lunch service today, the building is available for lease immediately. The owners hope to "not have a single day of vacancy" between the exit of Jamie Zelko's concept and what ever new one takes over.

This is a sad day for the Heights. This restaurant was much loved. Jamie Zelko is a Heights resident and respected in our community for her food and her honeybee project. I wish good things for her and hope to eat her Captain's Chicken or better-than-my-grandma's meatloaf again some day. Until we have more information, though, you might try grabbing lunch. My heart really goes out to the employees, who seem to know nothing about the fact that they may be losing their jobs any day. Give them an extra tip at your au revoir meal today. They'll need it.

Addendum from Facebook:
  • Jeremy Goodwin Here is the skinny. The sign was up for a few hours, the landlord is upping the rent to what I consider an untenable amount, already has a list of potential clients and took the sign down. The restaurant will stay open until the end of the lease, I don't know when that is but probably 90 days.
    • The Heights Life Realtor told me the space is available immediately if someone is ready to move in. He got a call from the restaurant asking him to take the sign down. He also said that the owner went to great lengths to get Zelko to stay. I pushed back hard on that, knowing full well what property owners are doing in the Heights these days. I mentioned that 11th St is particularly contentious right now and that many much-loved Heights businesses, spots that define the neighborhood, are being pushed out. He said that is not the case with Zelko. Until Chef Zelko makes a statement, this is all the information I have.

UPDATE, maybe (12:49 pm): People keep calling the restaurant out of concern. They are being told by employees at Zelko that "the sign was a cruel joke." Above are details of my conversation with the leasing agent, Mike Huff, of Berkshire Hathaway. If this is a joke, it's pretty well thought out to have the Realtor duped as well. Only time will tell at this point...

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sneak Peek: The Big Blue Whale

The Pink Polka Dot/Olive Anne has vacated the spot on 237 W. 19th Street. Opening in it's place comes The Big Blue Whale, a more comprehensive toy shop with items for more ages (and more genders) than it's predecessor. 

Owner Vanessa Woodhouse is a Native Houstonian and Heights resident who hopes the shop will become a destination for "curious kids and the people who love them." The Big Blue Whale will carry brands familiar to many with kids in their lives, like Crocodile Creek, Playmobil, Skip Hop, Hape (sustainable bamboo and wood toys from Germany), and Schleich (realistic animal and nature figures). There will also be lots of books, arts and crafts, games, and vintage style toys.

The shop will open for business next Tuesday, July 15th. Until then, a quick peek:

The Big Blue Whale
237 W 19th