By Jessica Dupuy
Photography by Steven Noreyko (of Chef Ryan Littman and his NY Strip steak dish) and Michael Klein (Windy Bar Ranch cattle grazing)
With more than 1,000 guest rooms, a six-acre pool and water park and a 36-hole golf course, the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa probably wouldn’t immediately conjure thoughts of eco-consciousness or environmental responsibility. But well before the amenities were finalized and the doors were opened in January 2010, a blueprint for positive environmental impact and thoughtful development was firmly in place.
“The reality is we occupy a lot of land,” says Mike Kass, director of sales and marketing for the resort. “We had an opportunity to come and build something that was much more conducive to protecting the land. Instead of thousands of residential homes along paved streets, we were able to make environmentally conscious decisions such as designating more than 100 acres to be a bird sanctuary.”
The spacious resort succeeds at complementing the beauty of the Hill Country with an authenticity that seems to say, Let us introduce you to a very special region of Texas, rather than, Welcome to our formatted, cookie-cutter luxury accommodation. And though the resort is indeed the child of a well-known corporate hotel chain, great effort has been made to put sustainability at the forefront.
The resort has become San Antonio’s single largest investor in Windtricity, the city’s wind-energy supplier, with 70 percent of the property powered by wind. Hybrid vehicles are provided for guests, and reserved parking spaces are available for guests with their own hybrid vehicles. In addition, the property was built according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification standards.
Of course, there’s a golf course on-site, which could justifiably raise some eyebrows in eco-conscious circles. But it, too, was designed to be as earth-friendly as possible, using a unique closed-loop system that retains water runoff for use in maintaining the course. It’s also certified by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, which helps golf properties improve natural areas and habitat.
While these examples enumerate the behind-the-scenes ways in which the resort has made deliberate eco-friendly efforts, one of the more tangible ways to see this commitment is in the food—particularly at the 18 Oaks restaurant, one of seven restaurants on the property. Here, guests find a menu inspired by the region using a variety of local ingredients and housemade specialties. Executive Chef Ryan Littman worked with food and beverage director Scott Siebert to bring to life the passion Littman has for supporting local food systems. Before the resort opened, Littman spent time visiting farmers markets in San Antonio, Austin and throughout the Hill Country, establishing a solid network of potential suppliers. To date, he’s built relationships with purveyors such as Thunder Heart Bison, Brazos Valley Cheese, Texas Olive Ranch and Hairston Creek Farm.
When Littman and his team were devising the concept for 18 Oaks, the main interest was showcasing what Texas is most known for: beef. However, he soon found that procuring only Texas-raised beef was easier said than done. Conventionally, Texas ranches ship their cattle out of state for processing and distribution by larger meatpacking companies. Rarely are Texas consumers actually able to trace the meat they buy back to Texas.
“I really didn’t want to have a steak restaurant that wasn’t using Texas steak,” says Littman. “So I reached out to one of our vendors, Franklin Hall at Lone Star Foodservice, and it turns out he knew a rancher in Stonewall who was interested in selling directly to us.”
With more than 18 years of conventional cattle-ranching experience, Michael Klein of Windy Bar Ranch had been looking for a way to sell his beef locally for years. When he heard of the Marriott’s interest in local beef, he was thrilled.
“It was a longtime dream come true,” says Klein. “All it took was a big buyer like the Marriott to ask for this type of product and Lone Star Foodservice to go out of the way to invest in processing and distributing local beef from someone like me.”
Windy Bar Ranch manages an average of 130 cattle that are primarily grassfed with a grain, corn, legume and vegetable supplement made at the ranch. Windy Bar also produces and uses its own biofuel for its tractors and trucks, and uses virtually chemical-free fertilizer from the ranch’s cattle manure.
“Conventional cattle methods are to grow cattle faster, quicker, cheaper,” says Klein. “Our game is to grow cattle slower, better and more tasteful. We want our beef to taste like the Hill Country and that is all a factor of what we feed [the cattle], where we feed them and how we treat them.”
The result is certified prime beef with excellent marbling and a delicious taste that is sold almost exclusively to the resort. The relationship has given Klein’s ranch a new direction in business and has helped Littman reduce his beef cost by about a third.
In many ways, this is where being environmentally responsible has taken on a new meaning. “Being green is so much different than it was ten years ago,” says Kass. “It’s more than just recycling and conserving energy, but for us it has become about becoming a part of the local community and supporting the things that go on here.”
That local support manifests itself in choices in food sources, and also in the art displayed throughout the property—from the lobby’s large abstract pieces by Texas artists, to the small glass votives designed by San Antonio sculptor Jenny Garcia. The resort also gives back to the community through local events. At its grand opening, nearly one million dollars was raised for the Fisher House Foundation, a military charitable organization in San Antonio. The event also enlisted the help of the Fredericksburg Farmers Market to introduce guests to the local produce of the Hill Country.
"The environmental impact is important, but so is building trust and connections with the surrounding area,” says Kass. “Only then do guests really feel that this place reflects not only the aesthetic of this region, but the warmth and friendliness as well.”