Agri Leader

Opening a garden restaurant took guts

There are some people who aren’t afraid in the least to try something new, to take a risk, to follow their hearts and try to better their community.

Two of those people are Scott and Lolly McLane, owners of the Garden Cafe at McLane’s Country Garden in downtown Sebring. Nursery owners for over 23 years, the couple decided to open a restaurant inside their flower nursery to help revitalize the city’s downtown district. It was something that hadn’t been done before as far as they knew. Plus, they knew nothing about running a restaurant.

“We started going to different meetings of the CRA, and one of the things they said very strongly was that our downtown needs places for people to eat, all kinds of vendors that have food, and things that would be open in the evenings,” recalled Lolly.

She added, “We really liked downtown and we would like it to grow. We would like to be pioneers.”

So two and a half years ago, with the help of CRA funds and enthusiastic community members, the restaurant was erected amongst the begonias, pentas and marigolds. Set back from the road, customers meander through plants and garden statues to a breezy, open-air restaurant with a rafter ceiling, lots of artwork, and a Mediterranean feel.

“This is a favorite spot,” said Scott, the quieter of the two, of a four-top nestled in behind a flowering bush.

“We have quite a nice following,” said friendly, talkative Lolly.

Taking risks and making big career changes isn’t new to the McLanes. Sixty-seven-year-old Scott grew up in Ft. Lauderdale in a family business growing aquatic plants. He’s also worked as a carpenter and had a photography business.

Lolly, 56, grew up in El Salvador in a sugarcane farming family and worked for a bank. When civil war began to rock the country, her parents sent her and her three siblings to the U.S. on student visas. She earned her business degree at Nova University.

Scott earned his business degree at Florida Atlantic. The couple had a lake house in Sebring, and when their photo business began to decline with the advent of digital photography, they moved out of the big city permanently and relocated to Highlands County.

With few jobs available, Scott said one of their options was to “make their own.” They felt there was a niche for high quality annuals and perennials, and since each had a green thumb, they went to work launching their nursery.

They made a name for themselves with their signature hanging baskets, and also selling bunches of flowers on the road. “People still remember us. At five o’ clock we used to stand with bouquets of fresh flowers on the corner of Ridgewood,” Lolly smiled.

The McLanes, who have one grown son, are also well-known for growing from seed, especially hard-to-get varieties that aren’t sold in most local nurseries. They have an extensive herb garden from which fresh ingredients are harvested for the kitchen.

And “fresh” is the word they both emphasized when it came to the menu. Lolly, who is in charge of the restaurant end with Scott handling most of the nursery, creates and executes on the menu, focusing on fresh, healthy and a bit exotic dishes such as a spinach artichoke grilled cheese, a layered taco salad, a Tuscan pizza, a turkey cranberry salad (what Lolly calls “Thanksgiving in a bowl”) and a Havana sandwich on naan bread, served with beans and rice.

Lolly said they always insist on the highest quality meats and products, such as an apple cider vinaigrette dressing that is more perishable than standard restaurant fare, but that her customers rave about and which will be a summer staple this year. They are also procuring locally-grown tomatoes and lettuce.

Lolly laughed a little at herself, recalling how when she first got started in the business, people asked her questions she didn’t understand. “They said, ‘where did you learn how to plate?,’” she said. Though never formally taught in a school or restaurant setting, Lolly credited her mother with teaching her things like how to properly prepare a pineapple.

“For example, if somebody came to our home and she was not there, I was not allowed to give just a glass of water. You needed a plate, a napkin, and a piece of fruit,” Lolly insisted. That type of etiquette makes a big impact in a restaurant, she added.

McLane’s Country Garden has been chosen by their food distributor, Sysco, as one of a handful of restaurants to host a tapas night this summer with Chef Luis Torres. They also

won the Highlands Today’s best start-up business award in 2012.

Lolly remembers the comment made by the person who nominated them: “It actually took guts to open a restaurant when you don’t know anything about restaurants, and it took the most guts opening it downtown.”