The Eating Our Words 100

The Eating...Our Words 100: Nicole & Michael Graham, Owners of The Garden Hen

What they do:

Michael: The Garden Hen is unique. There is a market out there -- chicken owners who don't know how to care for chickens or to care for them when they are ill, or to bring their chickens when they [the owners] leave town. We offer everything from sourcing to incubation, chick-hatching projects for schools, a cleaning service -- we call it the "pool-man" service -- where we come by once a week to replenish bedding, feed, water, give treats and clip wings. We find birds homes and set up backyard coops, and we also build backyard coops. We built a coop in Tanglewood that would be something you might see in Southern Living magazine. In addition to chickens, we've also gotten into quail.

Nicole: A little over three years ago, I turned to Michael and said, "You know, I really want to go get some chickens." And he thought I was kidding, that it was a joke, but I was serious! We had to go source some birds; I started with three, but I got home and said, "You know, I want more than three" and Michael laughed at me again. I went back and got two more, so I started out with five birds. Michael was working with his father and uncle, but now he runs The Garden Hen full-time and I teach preschool, which I have done for almost four years.

Why they do it:

Michael: My wife is so passionate about chickens, and I was so negative about it at first! So many of our friends and families were interested, asking us about our beautiful eggs and everything. I'm a businessman, and I left a job working with my dad in commercial real estate to do this full-time because I saw an opportunity. We were recently awarded a chick-hatching project for a private school. We developed a character -- a chicken farmer -- and I go into the school and classrooms and teach the kids. We're doing that at the Woods Private School out here in Cypress. They are really innovative and they recognized the opportunity. Now we're in talks with other schools and we are looking to expand the chick-hatching project.

Nicole: There is a lot of work that goes into owning chickens, but it's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done in my life along with teaching kids. That's why we are combining the two, because it's rewarding to see a child's reaction, the expression on their face and the excitement.

How and why they do it, in Houston

Nicole: In Houston you are not allowed to own chickens unless your coop is over 100 feet away from your neighbors. You have to have fewer than 30 birds, and you cannot have a rooster. Most people get distraught about chickens! Chickens have to be behind a fence, but you have to be careful because chickens get curious and they have a tendency to migrate. They say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; well, chickens like to dig around and forage, so you have to make sure you have a high enough fence to contain your birds! Every chicken I have owned has its own personality -- they are very quirky, very funny, very smart animals.

Michael: We have 30 chickens, but that's our inventory -- we tell people that and they get intimidated because they don't want 30 chickens! You can have small flocks in West U and Bellaire, and some of our customer base is located there. [Our customers] also have gardens, and that's our base -- the person who wants farm-to-table living made fresh and easy. That's my wife's slogan, and the slogan for our company. Our customers' mentality, and ours, is to become more self-sufficient.

What's next?

Michael: Nicole is a teacher and I see our long-term aspirations of owning a feed store-slash-chicken egg hatchery-slash-educational facility -- [a place where] people can come, bring students on a field trip and see the whole process: incubation rooms, hatching, brooding, final product of chickens in coops and pens. A whole educational facility and a feed store for folks on our side of town [Cypress/Tomball].

My wife has a real passion for quail, and a chef here in town is going to take them on a podcast/webcast called Chef on the Hunt. Chef Caleb is going to be doing quail dishes and quail egg dishes. Right now we don't have the inventory to produce meat for a restaurant. If a chef needs one or two birds for a catered meal -- say for hunters out in West Texas -- they can take a couple dozen of our quail or some of our quail eggs and do that for a one-time kind of thing.

Nicole: Eventually we do want to get on that scale [to sell to restaurants]. Our long-term goal is to own a nutritional, free-range poultry that is a prime source of protein. The truth is, you never know what you are getting in your food unless you see it yourself. Restaurants and grocery stores are moving toward that healthier way of living, but you can't always know for sure. We are striving to provide a healthier way of sustainable living for people.

Michael: Some birds we sold a girl out in Spring are going to be featured in the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo next year -- a Rhode Island Red rooster and hen -- that she will show for [Future Farmers of America]. We are really excited about that!

The Eating...Our Words 100:

- Staci Davis, Owner of Radical Eats - Philippe Verpiand, Owner and Chef at Etoile Cuisine et Bar - Tyler Horne, Market Manager at Urban Harvest Farmers Market - Stephanie Earthman Baird, Bringing Wine to Cowboys - Yilmaz "Jim" and Deanna Dokuyucu, Husband-and-Wife Owners of Turquoise Grill - Dan Tidwell of Treebeards on Downtown Houston's Past, Present and Future - Kiran Verma, Executive Chef and Owner of Kiran's Restaurant & Bar - Catherine Rodriguez, Pastry Chef at The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa - Jody Stevens, Owner and Cake Designer of jodycakes - Bobby Heugel, Owner of Anvil, Blacksmith, The Hay Merchant and OKRA's Charity Saloon - Renatta Lindsey, The Taste Contestant and Houston Home Cook - Enrique Bravo of Pollo Bravo on How Selling Chicken Helped Him Realize His American Dream - Sean Beck, Sommelier Extraordinaire - Brooksy Smith, Owner of JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers - Minh Nguyen, Owner of Cafe TH and One of Houston's Best Front-of-House Personalities - Tiffany Tyler and Aimee Turney of Central City Co-Op - Ellen Schwartz, Culinary Instructor & Private Chef - James DeLeon, Certified Sommelier and Craft Beer Nut at Kroger - Alex Padilla, Executive Chef at Ninfa's on Navigation - Kevin Strickland, Herder of Cats at gratifi, a.k.a. Ziggy's - Ron Chen, Owner and "Head Coach" at Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro - Brock Wagner, Godfather of Craft Beer in Houston and Founder of Saint Arnold Brewery, the Oldest Microbrewery in Texas - Blanche Kinze, Murray's Cheese Master at Kroger - Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer & Educator, Spec's - Sam Ray of Republic National, Houston's Largest Wine Distributor - Thai Van, Server Extraordinaire at Kata Robata - Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers - Denman Moody, Author of The Advanced Oenophile - Benjy Mason, Executive Chef at Down House

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Christina Uticone