Southern California Restaurant Group Sees Hydroponics as Key to Continued Growth
September 30, 2015 | AJ Hughes
Tender Greens, a Southern California-based restaurant chain committed to serving up high-quality local foods, is increasingly relying on hydroponics and other forms of indoor growing methods to supply its restaurants.
As the company continues to grow (it currently has multiple locations in several major metropolitan areas in California), co-founder Erik Oberholtzer sees numerous advantages to procuring food from hydroponic farms.
One benefit, according to Oberholtzer, is meeting increased demand for locally-grown plants that don’t travel well, such as herbs and lettuces. Other advantages include saving money by requiring less water and energy, reduced crop loss, better pest control, and higher plant quality.
“Indoor agriculture saves money. If you can grow close to the source, less money is spent on logistics, and you can control crop loss,” says Oberholtzer.
One of the best aspects of indoor growing systems like hydroponics, according to Oberholtzer, is that it enables farmers to replicate growing environments. For example, it would allow a farmer to reproduce the climate of Encinitas, California in Woodstock, Illinois, or anywhere else, for that matter.
“If we are going to maintain a high level of quality, we need to mimic California’s growing dynamic,” Oberholtzer says. “The produce itself has to perform on the plate. It has to be delicious, and the price point has to work both for the farmer and Tender Greens.”
Currently, only 10 percent of the produce Tender Greens uses is grown in a hydroponic system, but Oberholtzer predicts this number will increase.
Presently, much of Tender Greens’ indoor-grown food comes from four Southern California farms. They include three hydroponic farms; Encinitas-based Go Green Agriculture, Los Angeles-based Local Roots, and Irvine-based Alegría, and one aeroponic farm, Los-Angeles based Green City Farms.
Because Oberholtzer and his colleagues want their customers to be knowledgeable and excited about where their food comes from, all new Tender Greens locations will feature hydroponic grow towers. This way, some of the produce will complete its entire life cycle—germination to consumption—inside the restaurant.
Oberholtzer envisions hydroponics as a strategic way for Tender Greens to expand while staying true to its roots. He recently visited New York City to explore opening the first Tender Greens on the east coast.
“By reproducing ideal growing environments, Tender Greens will be able to expand to wherever there is demand for fresh, quality, locally-grown produce,” he says.
Oberholtzer believes hydroponics is a solution to many of the problems of growers and others in the food and agriculture business.
“Last year at the Seedstock conference, a lot of small farmers were complaining about the economics of farming, and nobody seemed to have solutions,” he says. “In my view, this model is a solution. It can be something like a franchise—put it in the supply chain.”
Through partnering with local hydroponic farmers, Oberholtzer sees a path for his model to scale.
“We partner with people; we are not expert farmers. We stay ahead of the curve and work with these guys at the ground level,” Oberholtzer says. “We’re always looking for farms that meet our quality specs.”
Growing hydroponically is not without its obstacles—namely, sufficient light output at a reasonable cost.
“With light technology, energy output is challenging,” he says. “The technology was developed over the years for marijuana, but the profit margin for marijuana is different than the profit margin for arugula.”
Nevertheless, Oberholtzer views this challenge as a minor bump in the road toward replicable and sustainable indoor growing.
Oberholtzer is slated as one of the speakers at the 4th Annual Seedstock Agriculture Innovation Conference. Scheduled November 3-4, 2015 at the UC San Diego Rady School of Management, the conference theme is “Innovation and the Rise of Local Food.”