More US restaurants using on-site hydroponic and aeroponic gardens to grow food in water and mineral solutions, tapping into consumer demand for fresher foods and unique flavors
May 17, 2013
– To satisfy diners who clamor for local produce, Nana takes it to a new level — the basement.
That's where the restaurant, 3267 S. Halsted St., maintains a 100-square-foot hydroponic garden, which produces mustard greens, basil, broccoli and more, all without soil.
Tapping into a consumer demand for fresher foods and unique flavors, more restaurants are using on-site hydroponic and aeroponic gardens to grow food — lettuce, herbs and edible flowers — in water and mineral solutions. Grow towers used for some larger operations can cost $500 to $600, said Alex Poltorak, owner of Urban Canopy of Chicago, who provides the plants for Nana and consults on garden setups.
In addition to saving on delivery costs because the products are literally on hand, restaurants also say an in-house garden helps set them apart in a highly competitive market.
"For us, it's the freshness and the local appeal," said owner Omar Solis, adding that some herbs are used for cocktails.
The methods will be spotlighted at a hydroponics market at the National Restaurant Association Show, which runs Saturday through Tuesday at McCormick Place. It's part of the show's sustainability center that also will include vertical wall gardens for space-challenged eateries.
"Chefs are looking for the freshest and most creative ingredients, and a lot of them fall in the category of microgreens,'' said Mary Pat Heftman, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association. "More and more chefs want to use things that are locally sourced, and they want it as fresh as possible.
"It's primarily right now being used in fine dining, but those will all filter down, and you will see them in a couple of years at your casual restaurants," Heftman said.
Restaurants using the systems can save on microgreens, another name for young, edible greens, which can cost up to $100 per pound; provide accessibility to the produce, most of which is grown on the West Coast; and allow for more creativity with menu customization featuring products grown in-house, said Brian Watkins, a co-founder of AMB Eco, a Des Plaines company that designs, builds and installs hydroponic gardens.
"(The greens) have a very short shelf life, and are so expensive," Watkins said. "Many chefs who really wanted to use them kind of get priced out."
His company offers a $400- to $750-a-month service to maintain the on-site gardens by replacing harvested plants. Restaurants can recoup the service fee through savings on shipping costs, Watkins said.
"If you're growing micro basil, micro rainbow chard and you're shipping all of that, you could be saving well over 50 percent on your food costs on microgreens," he said.
Moto, 945 W. Fulton Market, uses the hydroponic concept as part of the on-site farm in a 5-by-9-foot converted office.
The farm, which cost about $11,000 to install, also improves the indoor air quality, said chef Homaro Cantu. He says he recouped his installation costs within three months through growing his own microgreens.
"I wanted to see if we could grow a more flavorful product on-site. I just wanted to see if we could go zero miles on this stuff," Cantu said. "The chefs literally walk into this room and pick their greens for the day.
"The next step is growing full-sized products."
Customers can tour the garden after meals.
Cantu thinks he can decrease the restaurant's produce bill by 30 percent annually with a bigger farm.
The Lockwood restaurant at the Palmer House Hilton has used three 5-foot hydroponic towers since last year to produce lettuce and herbs as part of the rooftop garden, said Joseph Rose, executive chef.
"I'm able to grow a lot more a lot faster with this than the traditional way of putting them in the ground," Rose said.
The concept has taken off at O'Hare International Airport, where a 930-square-foot aeroponic urban garden in Terminal 3 produces sweet basil, Swiss chard, green beans and peppers for HMSHost Corp., which operates restaurants in more than 100 airports, including Tortas Frontera, Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi, Blackhawks/Stanley's Kitchen & Tap, Tuscany and Wolfgang Puck at O'Hare.
Thirty to 40 pounds of produce are harvested from the garden each month, said Brad Maher, food and beverage operations director for HMSHost.
The garden, on the mezzanine level, also offers a soothing spot for travelers, Maher said.
"It's a big educational piece for people. We've created a nice, peaceful, calm environment at the airport. We have seating and stuff around it. They're able to go up and get away from the hustle and bustle of the airport," he said. "It's very aromatic. You can smell the basil. You can smell the sage."
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