Farm-to-table may have worked its way into our everyday vocabulary, but shipping container-to-table could be the way of the future — at least if one South Carolina restaurant’s business model catches on. In December 2017, Dockery’s restaurant on Daniel Island, S.C., installed Vertical Roots, an aeroponic shipping container farm that sits at its backdoor, and the quality, consistency, and cost-savings of the lettuce it produces could usher in a new era in sustainable dining.
But let’s backtrack. Aeroponic farming is nothing new. The concept of growing plants in a soil-less environment with minimal water was introduced by botonists in the 1920s. The science, however, took a backseat to the more popular hydroponic — or soil-free, nutrient-rich water farming — and didn’t really gain traction again until the 1980s. In fact, Disney’s Epcot Center “The Land” pavilion is often credited with heralding aeroponic farming’s arrival. The exhibit was promoted as the agriculture of the future when it debuted in 1982. Thirty-six years later, it (finally) is.
Sitting right next door to Dockery’s, the Vertical Roots farm is made of two shipping containers stationed side by side. Inside, the 320-square-foot containers can support up to 4,000 plants at a time. Using LED lights and a mix of nutrients and vitamins, the plants grow in a controlled environment, an ecosystem that can produce lettuce in approximately 35 days — serious speed in comparison to the 50-70 days it takes a head of lettuce to grow in soil.
“The majority of local greens, even organic ones, are likely coming from Arizona and California — as far as a 3,000 mile journey,” said Vertical Roots owner Andrew Hare. “ That could be a 10 day trip and in the process 10 to 30 percent of the plant’s yield could be lost.”
It’s a headache Dockery’s manager Chuck Isenberg is all too familiar with. “I can’t even tell you the amount of spoilage you have. Lettuce is a very sensitive product,” he said.
“It really is amazing when you think about how fresh we’re able to serve our product,” he continued. “Instead of these things being harvested in a field, being shipped to a produce company, then trucked to you, they’re literally harvesting and walking it right to the restaurant.”
That, said Isenberg, is where the cost savings comes in. “We get it fresh everyday. There are multiple times we’ll get a second order from the guys because it’s a busy day, and we’re very tight on our inventory and what we purchase each day. Not having to deal with the spoilage is big.”
Add to that the fact that Vertical Roots can plant and harvest at Dockery’s request, and they’ve created a formula for perfect greens every time.
For instance, Dockery’s sister restaurant in downtown Charleston recently requested petit greens to add a decorative element to dishes. Vertical Roots carved out a bit of the container’s growing space just for petit greens and, because they’re so small, harvested the first batch in 10 days — perfectly timed for the new restaurant’s opening date.
While a traditional farmer and restaurant can share a similar relationship requesting certain vegetables, there’s still transport involved and the whims of Mother Nature to contend with, all factors that can inflate the produce’s cost. For instance, a drought year can cause tomato prices to skyrocket. As chefs and restaurateurs struggle to keep costs down, a nearby aeroponic container farm offers consistent products at a steady price.
Growing for It
It’s not just Charleston that’s witnessing a farming revolution. L.A.’s Local Roots farm is using similar aeroponic technology. According to Los Angeles Magazine, “a 40-foot container can yield 4,000 heads of lettuce every ten days. ” While Local Roots isn’t installed on restaurant properties like Vertical Roots, its website suggests its proximity to buyers and restaurants has reduced food miles by 93 percent.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Farmshelf is beta testing small, hydroponic, indoor, farms that fit inside restaurants such as Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Harlem and Jose Andres’ Beefsteak. The moveable four-shelf units, that run via app, are compact enough to be placed in kitchens, or, in Samuelsson’s case, the center of the restaurant.
Farmshelf cofounder Jean-Paul Kyrillos says the idea is to eliminate the costs and spoilage of food travel, while delivering high quality taste and consistency. When launched this fall, Farmshelf’s units will cost roughly $7,000, operate by app, and allow chefs to grow and use exactly what they need be it arugula or basil.
“It’s easy to use, local, and sustainable,” says Kyrillos. Add to that the fact that diners can physically see exactly where their greens are coming from as they eat, and he says it’s an easy sell. With virtually no food waste thanks to the Farmshelf plants fast growth and seasonal accessibility, Kyrillos sees Farmshelf’s future moving from restaurants and corporate kitchens to homes in a matter of years.
These are just a few of the tech-focused farming developments coming to market. But Kyrillos thinks these are just the start. “There’s going to be a lot of solutions — commercial warehouse farms, Farmshelf, container farms, but farming is on its way to being much more sustainable.”
At Dockery’s restaurant, Isenberg says the staff is just starting to see the promotional value having the onsite farm offers. Guests can sit at their tables and watch fresh lettuce coming out of Vertical Roots’ container directly to the kitchen, making this type of sustainability and creative business visible from a marketing perspective.
“We get so many questions from guests wanting to know about the containers,” says Isenberg. “Having that visual when the guest walks up to the restaurant, it’s a pretty big win for us.”
Skift Table contributer Kinsey Gidick is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C. where she spends the majority of her time eating her way through the city.
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