Summer months make an ideal time to visit Powell Gardens, the botanical gardens located about 45 minutes outside Kansas City in Lone Jack, Missouri. It's currently an explosion of color and fragrance. And as we reported last February, there's a new culinary team operating the venue's restaurant, Cafe Thyme: Eddie Osborne, Guy Campbell, and actress turned restaurant manager Brenda Nelson. The trio of entrepreneurs took over the restaurant from its previous operator, Michael Foust of the Farmhouse (Nelson's former employer) in March.
Cafe Thyme has never really lived up to its potential, probably because it's been treated as something of an afterthought. It's not a full-service restaurant but it always has aspirations to be more than a snack shop. Nelson and company are trying hard, but some of the same old problems linger on.
"Hey, we're still very much a work in progress," Nelson says.
I visited Powell Gardens on Sunday, and although Nelson and company have simplified the menu considerably, it still took 25 minutes to get through the line and be served from a fast-moving kitchen crew making customized wrap sandwiches and salads. One of my dining companions thought an old-fashioned salad bar would be a solution to the problem, but the constricted self-service area of the dining room - poorly designed from the very beginning - really wouldn't be very effective for that unless they could move such a station out into the middle of the dining room.
The cookies looked as if they came from a box (Nelson says they're a frozen product baked off in the Cafe Thyme kitchen) and frankly weren't very good. I did admire the water container with a little sign stating that it was "lime water with cinnamon basil," which tasted like, well, water.
There's a separate area outside, along the garden path, also operated by Cafe Thyme, selling hot dogs and burgers. That helps the traffic flow a lot, too. "I understand that before we changed things," Nelson says, "the lines were really long, extending out the door and into the hall. We want to feed as many people as we can in a finite time period, so we're constantly figuring out ways to make it a fast but comfortable experience."
Nelson says Powell Gardens didn't want table service for this fast-casual concept, so she and her partners are constantly thinking outside the box: "In the cooler months, in the winter and spring, we were offering casserole-style items and quiche, but there was less traffic during those months, and we had more room to experiment."
Previous operators of Cafe Thyme had offered fried or grilled items, but the current team at the restaurant felt that the food in a garden setting should focus on healthy dining choices. They dropped the previous operator's Reuben sandwich and turned off the deep fryers for good.
"Every day we're in the gardens, picking lettuce or herbs. We base our menu on what's currently in season in the gardens, so in the next few weeks, you'll see more choices made with tomatoes and fresh berries."
Cafe Thyme is open every day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The annual "Booms & Blooms" festival at the gardens, featuring day lilies, patriotic music and fireworks, will be held this Wednesday, July 3.