After launching a successful software company in Japan’s version of Silicon Valley, Australian-born entrepreneur Rob Laing made a 180-degree shift in careers. He enrolled in culinary classes, which got him interested in the myriad of ingredients that are incorporated into different dishes. The entrepreneur in him couldn’t help but wonder about the process by which chefs acquire these ingredients, and how they’re grown.
“I became intrigued with the idea of growing rare, unusual ingredients after finding exciting herbs and flowers at farmers markets around the world and wondering if I could apply the new techniques of vertical farming to growing these kinds of items,” says Laing, CEO and founder of Farm.One, a vertical farm located in Manhattan.
Laing wasn’t aware of anyone else trying to grow some of these rare ingredients in close proximity to their prospective customers, so he founded Farm.One with a “small amount” of his own money. The farm is located inside the Institute of Culinary Education, a culinary school in New York City. He says that Farm.One started with a small prototype facility and has grown step by step.
“We raised a little [money] from friends and family in early 2017, and have just started an equity crowdfunding campaign to accelerate our growth.”
There’s now 1,500 square feet of growing space split between two farms: the culinary school and a second, larger farm in Lower Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, underneath the two Michelin-starred restaurant Atera.
“It’s tiny but we manage the space very precisely with software to get the most out of it,” Laing says. Everything is grown in these relatively small facilities hydroponically with LED lighting.
Growing a profitable business model
Although Laing may not have a horticulture or farming background, he has the business acumen to run a startup. Plus, he has had the experience of watching his parents venture into olive production in Australia, and noted some of their challenges, such as keeping destructive kangaroos away from their trees. He quickly found that indoor farming eliminates any potential problems with large animals.The biggest operating expense is lighting. Farm.One doesn’t have to spend too much money heating its facilities because the buildings it’s growing in are well-insulated and the lights generate heat. Laing says the company tried a variety of LED lighting systems from different manufacturers before deciding on a specific system from Fluence Bioengineering. Since starting to use the system, Farm.One has had great results in terms of the color and flavor of its products.
Farm.One currently employs 12 people, six who are devoted to production, five in management and one delivery person.“We have a little larger team right now because we’re trying to grow the business for the future,” Laing says. “But everything we’re looking at right now says it’s going to be a good, profitable business. And because we’re in the middle of the city, we can do events and classes around the products we grow, which adds a revenue stream. Just like a vineyard in Napa Valley can do wine tasting, we can do the same thing in New York City.”
Catering to the chefs
Farm.One caters to the demand of popular chefs around the city, including Matthew Hyland, owner and chef of Pizza Loves Emily. And although he has only been working with Laing and Farm.One for a few months, he’s been pleased with the arrangement.
“It’s working great. We’ve got custom basil for our pizzas,” Hyland says. “People really like it because it’s something they’ve never seen before.” The custom basil he is referring to is a variety named Pluto, just one of Farm.One’s 580 varieties of rare herbs, edible flowers and microgreens it currently grows.
“Farm.One represents the future of where farming is going,” Hyland says. “We’re trying to have nicer, local stuff at a pizzeria, which is what most people don’t use. They use a commodity product. Farm.One is trying to grow nicer things that are sustainable. We’re trying to do the right thing.”
From farm to table... in no time!
Farm.One’s produce is grown so close to its customer base that it can deliver it by bicycle or subway, literally minutes after it is harvested. Right now, that customer base consists of upscale restaurants in New York City — popular eateries that employ chefs who simply won’t stand for the ordinary.
“Being close by is a huge benefit. The alternative for chefs is to ship product hundreds or thousands of miles, with loads of packaging and delays,” Laing says. “Being able to visit the farm with the chefs’ sous-chefs and line cooks is an added bonus — many young cooks have never seen something growing!”
Farm.One is eager to meet the demands of these chefs and can usually find the plants they are looking for from the 60-plus different international seed vendors that they work with.
“Every time we meet a chef we ask for their dream crop and set out to find the seeds to grow them,” Laing says.
The demand from chefs varies over time, Laing says, but right now the top three items are Pluto basil, a dwarf variety with a powerful cinnamon and clove scent; ‘Miz America’ mizuna, a dark burgundy-colored microgreen with a gentle mustard flavor; and various types of oxalis flowers, including ‘Irish Mist.’ Hyland also likes wasabi arugula, which he uses to spice up his pizzas.
“Chefs love the taste. Without that, we wouldn’t have any customers, so that’s first and foremost,” Laing says. “But they also love being able to specify an exact leaf size, which requires careful growing recipes and exact scheduling.”
Having a party? Farm.One has taken their product on the road. The company delivers an “edible bar” of select herbs and flowers to gatherings around town.
“The edible bar is where we bring the farm to you,” Laing says. “We have a selection of dozens of live plants in a simple hydroponic tray that we can serve to party-goers straight off the stem.” He says the idea actually came from a customer who wanted something special for a corporate event. It was such a hit they’re continuing to offer it to customers.
“People love tasting plants they have never seen or heard of before,” Laing says. “We can provide a general selection, or offer a tailored menu of herbs and flowers that complement specific flavor notes in a product.” For example, they produced an edible bar for Macallan (a whiskey distillery) that matched a new whiskey, which he said was “an exciting and dramatic way of emphasizing the flavor profile.”