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Specifying for Indoor Agriculture

Are vertical and indoor farms going to evolve in the foodservice arena?

specifier march imageThis is “a trend that [foodservice designers] should consider and be aware of — designing indoor agriculture-related spaces as part of the back of the house,” says Melanie Corey-Ferrini, FCSI, founder and CEO of Dynamikspace and 3.14 DC in Seattle. “There are a variety of benefits to incorporating these units into a dining experience, including creating a design focal point and providing a food-forward experience.”

Corey-Ferrini partnered with elite|studio e, a design, build and consulting firm in Farmingdale, N.Y., for the HX: The Hotel Experience’s Foodservice Pioneering Concept last fall. Their winning design, Grains & Green, is a fast-casual concept that allows customers to build their own healthy bowls and salads using fresh greens from a built-in hydroponic garden.

Given that the opportunity to develop alternative revenue streams will remain important for operators even when the COVID-19 crisis subsides, Corey-Ferrini views indoor agriculture systems as a potential profit center. For example, operators can use these systems as a co-op with other food facilities. “Depending on the size of your indoor agriculture system, you can grow produce, herbs and spices for your own facility and/or sell retail or wholesale,” she notes. The opportunity to develop alternative revenue streams will continue to be important for operators in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Another benefit is the ability, in some cases, to provide a learning experience. Phillip Landgraf, principal, Ricca Design Studios, says that’s why many colleges and universities, as well as healthcare facilities with dedicated wellness programs, invest in indoor growing systems.

From that point, the list of benefits grows even further. Corey-Ferrini points out that operators focused on sustainable building design can earn LEED credits and score other “points” for having an on-site garden. Not to mention, she notes, customers appreciate it, especially when they can literally see what they’re eating growing nearby. Hydroponic systems, in particular, that don’t require the use of soil offer alternatives to traditional industrial agriculture. There’s even a closed-loop story to tell with these systems; when foodservice operations grow food for their use and the community, it expands access to fresh food and keeps dollars flowing through local economies.

“As a former chef, the ability to source high-quality produce in off-season conditions and reduce reliance on imported foods is also a plus for the chef and consumer,” Landgraf says. “There are only two professions where people trust your skills enough to ingest what you give them: a doctor and a chef. That put into perspective the responsibility restaurateurs have to produce safe food. Hydroponics and aquaponics support that responsibility by relying far less on pesticides and fertilizers, greatly reducing the risk of foodborne illness.”

OK, so now that we’re pretty clear about all the benefits of an indoor ag system, the next step is to make it part of the foodservice design process. These systems “require a certain amount of space and utilities, whether you want to set them up in the front of the house or the back of the house,” says Landgraf.

Here are some considerations to take when designing room for these systems, both large and small.

Decide on the System

“Indoor agriculture” is a term that describes something growing inside a “controlled environment,” also known as Controlled Environment Agriculture or CEA, according to Corey-Ferrini. Available growing methods include hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponics. “In the United States, we mostly see hydroponic and aeroponic growing methods,” she says. “The main difference between these two forms is that aeroponic plants receive nutrients from a mist that is sprayed onto the roots several times an hour and, unlike hydroponic growing systems, the plants are never placed in water.”

Foodservice operators must first decide exactly what they want to grow in order to choose the right system. “Some plants work better in hydroponic systems, while others require soil-based systems to grow,” Landgraf says. “Some plants are better suited for indoor growing environments than others. For example, herbs and microgreens grow fast and in larger quantities that you can use in smaller amounts on a per-plate basis. You can grow those effectively yourself and almost entirely eliminate the need to purchase herbs. When it comes to other plants, it can be hard to get the volume you need to support a larger restaurant or university. They require much more space and infrastructure, so that needs to be taken into consideration.”

Right-Sized Space

Space represents the second most important consideration when designing indoor ag systems.

Hydroponic units tend to be smaller and more self-contained, so they can be set up in the dry storage room, an office, a section of the kitchen, or even a front-of-the-house area like a lobby. “The systems bring an interesting visual to spaces, as well as an edible landscape component,” says Corey-Ferrini, who often designs these systems behind a glass wall so guests can see what’s growing. “[Indoor ag systems] can be a focal point of a design and even a branding piece.”

Large, vertical towers often provide the best growing infrastructure in urban settings, or when space is limited horizontally. “With the use of robotics and artificial intelligence, vertical towers can be several stories tall — as long as you can access the plants with scaffolding or stairs for inspection and harvesting,” Corey-Ferrini says.

Water, Electricity and Ventilation

Though many hydroponic units are self-contained, complete with their own LED grow lights, designers still need to think about access to water, electricity and even ventilation when making space for indoor ag systems.

“Generally, the requirements are similar considerations to commercial kitchens, including temperature, water filtration methods and electrical needs,” Corey-Ferrini says. “You just have to pay special attention to humidity and supply/return air, and the LED lighting, which is specific to the growing conditions. However, technology has made the latter incredibly easy. Operators can care for their crops remotely through cameras, sensors and lighting controls.”

Soil-less units tend to use less water in general. And, the built-in LED lights can safely run overnight to take advantage of a time when utility costs are lower. “You can run these systems 24/7 because of the LED lighting, versus just 14 hours in natural daylight, so you can get two to three times as much product as you would in a traditional, outdoor garden setting,” says Landgraf.

Maintenance and Management

Making room in the budget for the management of these systems is important as well. “Corporate campuses, office buildings, retail centers, universities — they all spend a lot of money on outdoor landscaping and landscape maintenance; why not also focus on the indoor as well so you can grow things to eat?”

Many of these systems are self-contained or can be monitored remotely using technology. “It’s pretty low maintenance for the smaller indoor, individual systems,” says Landgraf. “But once you get into soil-based systems or greenhouses, that’s when you really need to have someone with a gardening background to plan the system and make sure it’s managed. It can become a full time job.”

Both Corey-Ferrini and Landgraf don’t see these indoor growing systems going away anytime soon. “The pandemic is not the only problem we will have in the future,” says Corey-Ferrini, who points out that indoor ag systems allow operators to develop, at least partially, their own produce supply chain. “During COVID, there was a time when people couldn’t get access to fresh produce. Why not set yourself up where you can grow your own produce and not worry about supply in the future?”