Bushwick-based startup Smallhold has taken the concept of farm-to-table to the next level by putting the farm right next to your table.
Hard to believe? Well, better believe. Using a hydroponic system, the company is able to grow mushrooms (and in the future, possibly greens like lettuce and herbs) inside glowing blue refrigerator-sized shelves located inside restaurants.
Think of it as a lobster tank, albeit with different species of mushrooms.
By making the food source accessible to the end user, Smallhold hopes to make food production and city supply chains more sustainable, not to mention make the ingredients cheaper and fresher.
“There is demand for extreme freshness, the freshest possible,” said Andrew Carter, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “The result is the mushrooms look better and are better nutritionally.”
For business owners and restaurateurs, using Smallhold’s mini farms is as simple as picking the produce once it’s ready. The startup basically does all the work.
They grow the mushrooms in a facility just outside New York. When the shrooms are nearing ripeness, they take them to the ‘fruit chambers’. Smallhold then monitors the chambers’ temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, airflow, and light exposure via sensors and tiny cameras.
Once the produce are ready, a team comes by the restaurant to help with the harvest.
Danny Bowien, chef and owner of Mission Chinese Food, is one such happy customer. His mini farm – and the abundant fresh mushrooms it makes – has led him to add a mushroom jerky option for his fried rice.
And apart from a source of fresh ingredients, Bowien added that the unit has also become sort of an attraction for customers.
“A lot of people think it is art,” he said. “It doesn’t look like anything you’d see in any other Chinese restaurant.”
We recently spoke to Smallhold to learn more about their innovative product, and what it means for sustainable food production.
Where did you get the idea to grow mushrooms inside restaurants, instead of farms?
“Smallhold was created in response to the many challenges associated with modern farming. Growing onsite greatly reduces the economic and environmental impacts of resource use, transportation, and packaging.
“In the US, the average meal travels over 1,500 miles before reaching the consumer, losing nutrients and decaying all that time. Smallhold produce is harvested and put to use immediately, providing access to healthy and fresh food.
“Smallhold’s network of distributed farms also represents an important strategy for feeding the growing population in urban areas.”
Could you tell us more about how Smallhold’s mini mushroom farm works?
“Our Minifarms are fully automated and remotely-monitored, allowing us to grow produce all year round, while fine-tuning growth parameters to achieve optimal yields. Our sensor suites provides us with real-time insight into how our units are performing, making farming onsite effortless for our clients.
“Minifarms clients subscribe to the mushroom varieties they are interested in growing, and we deliver growing, or ‘live’ produce into their farms on a weekly basis. Depending on its size, our Minifarms can produce 50-100 pounds of mushrooms a week.”
What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered? We can imagine it must be hard convincing restaurateurs to set aside space for a relatively new technology.
“Space is certainly an issue in New York City, though we’ve found that many chefs are willing to dedicate some to growing onsite. High rates of turnover in the restaurant industry can also be a challenge, with points of contacts and management changing frequently.”
Where can we find Smallhold farms? And do you have plans of expanding outside of NYC?
“We have Minifarms installed in Bunker Vietnamese and Mission Chinese, with several more in the works. We’re focusing on the greater New York area for now, but have plans to expand further in the near future.”
What’s your vision for Smallhold? Where do you see your startup in the near future?
“The dream is to distribute our network of Minifarms all around the world. In the immediate future, we have plans to broaden our reach in New York and begin work in new cities. As we grow, our technology will continue to improve and our produce offerings will expand.”
To learn more about Smallhold and their Minifarms, head on over here.