MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - They say necessity is the mother of all invention. For a Montgomery restaurant group, a shipping container turned out to be the solution to their problem.
Eric Rivera is the executive chef for Vintage Hospitality, which runs Vintage Year and Vintage Café. He was struggling to find fresh, sustainable lettuce options for his restaurants.
“We found that importing all the stuff from California or from Florida, we would get these lettuces after they’ve been harvested for days and sometimes almost a week by the time we get to them,” Rivera explained. “The product goes bad really fast costs a lot of money to replace that product with other product, it’s just not that quality that we were looking for.”
Enter the Freight Farm, an unassuming shipping container housed in the heart of Old Cloverdale - only steps from his restaurants. The 320 square-foot farm is equipped to grow up to 4 tons of produce a year, according to the manufacturer. It runs on power and minimal water consumption, a stark contrast to the water needed to farm traditional row crops.
“We can control all the elements and control the growth cycles,” he explained. “No rain, no hail, we’re not exposed to any elements.”
Which means they can grow a variety of greens year-round while decreasing the carbon footprint of cross-country supply chains and the threat of lettuce recalls.
“We feel like that it’s our responsibility in the restaurant industry not only provide healthy, nutritious food; but that is done in a socially conscious way as well,” stated Rivera.
Rivera and Vintage Hospitality owner Jud Blount are still experimenting with their first lettuce crop. The process begins with seedlings that grow in pods. Those are transferred into vertical columns where a wick slowly drips water to allow the plants to grow. The lettuce is then exposed to special lights that simulate 16 hours of daylight and eight hours of darkness. It takes between eight to 10 weeks to grow a full head of lettuce.
At harvest, the root will remain on the lettuce to ensure longer shelf life and Rivera believes customers will taste the difference.
“Right now the roots are already cut off and they are already dying when we get them in the restaurants,” said Rivera. “This gives us the advantage and creates crispness and overall a far more superior product."
When the farm is fully operational Rivera expects to grow enough lettuce for both restaurants.
“Our hope is to be able to have little clamshells of heads of lettuce in our café in the grab and go where customers can come daily and get arugula, bibb lettuce, oak leaf lettuce and take them home,” said Rivera.
A larger hope: this would create opportunities for urban areas and food deserts to farm produce in an affordable, practical way.
“We hope to set that example and show that it can be done with minimal work and show the farm does all the work for you for the most part,” he said.
Vintage Hospitality is already making plans to add a second container to plant other produce that grows in a different climate. The first harvest is slated for early February.