At the Hollywood location of Tender Greens, a California fast food chain that serves salads and sandwiches, diners are surrounded by next week’s lunch: A forest of aeroponic towers grows everything from peas and strawberries to squash and bell peppers.
“We’ve always been interested in growing on site,” says Erik Oberholtzer, co-founder of Tender Greens. “But all of our restaurants are in high-density urban areas, so aside from a few planter boxes we thought there was nothing beyond decorative that we could ever do.”
When the founders began researching vertical gardens, they learned about aeroponic towers that are installed, managed, and serviced by a company called Green City Farms–basically, plant-filled poles. “They’re perfect for our patios because there’s not much energy need and the water usage is minuscule,” Oberholtzer says. “We can grow 44 plants per tower. In Hollywood we have 24 towers, and they’re just popping with all kinds of fruits and vegetables.”
Once a week, the restaurant harvests produce from the towers and uses it in a daily special. “It’s fun for chefs,” he says. “They’re absolutely connected to the plants, because they’ve been watching them grow all week.”
With the restaurant’s high volumes, the towers can only provide a tiny fraction of the food served (and, sadly, diners can’t harvest their own greens to put directly in a salad). But the towers serve as a visible sign of the company’s bigger shift to ultra-efficient farming as California’s drought worsens. Hydroponic farming can save as much as 90% of the water that would be used to grow food in the field.
“We’re all in on controlled environment agriculture,” says Oberholtzer. “This sets the occasion for us to have a conversation with our guests around the future of farming and the role that we intend to play in that.”
Eventually, the restaurant hopes to source as much as 60% of the produce it buys from aeroponic or hydroponic systems. When we spoke on the phone, Oberholzer had just come from installing a new aeroponic system at Scarborough Farms, a large farm north of LA that supplies much of the company’s vegetables. They also buy from Alegria Farm, a parking-lot size urban farm in Orange County that uses hydroponics.
They also hope to work with startups using hydroponics indoors. “In the city, we can reactivate old warehouses in industrial zones where the rent is relatively cheap but it’s central for distribution purposes, adding green jobs and providing food that would otherwise be shipped in,” he says.
Indoor technology still faces some challenges from the large amount of energy required for lighting–which is one reason that Tender Greens has started with outdoor poles on the patio. “A lot of the indoor technology came out of the marijuana business,” says Oberholzer. “I think everybody got excited about it and then realized that arugula has a different margin, and therefore different economics than marijuana. So we still have to figure out the economics for the energy.”
Editor’s Note: This post originally said that Green City Farms makes aeroponic towers. It actually installs, manages, and services them.