The farm-to-table social movement has been growing quickly throughout North America in recent years as changing attitudes around food safety and freshness have resulted in more and more restaurants sourcing ingredients directly from a local producer.
The YellowBelly Brewery & Public House has gone a step further and has started growing microgreens on site, putting them in easy reach for chefs and cooks in the kitchen.
“When you’re eating, it should be a feast for the senses: sight, smell and taste, sometimes even textures. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here,” says Marcelo Mena, manager of the new YellowBelly Takeaway on Water Street and the man in charge of growing a variety of the edible, immature greens in a commercial urban cultivator tucked away on the second floor of the restaurant.
“Right now, it’s mostly garnish, but the next step will be producing more and seeing if we can get a mixture.”
Mena says the model allows kitchen staff to pick greens at peak flavour and nutritional value and serve them within minutes of harvest.
Among the current crops are radicchio, parsley, purple kale, sunflowers, chervil, wasabi, speckled peas and basil. Lots of basil.
“I cannot keep up with the production of basil,” says Mena. “I have six flats of basil, that’s how much we go through.”
Kitchen staff love it, he says, because it gives them a guaranteed fresh and edible option to dress their plates, and management love it because it’s helping knock down an overhead cost during the lean winter months.
“They’ve saved so much money, especially on the basil because they go through so much. For about a month and a half to two months, they did not buy any basil.”
Mena’s green thumbs
In many ways, Mena was the organic choice to take over the microgreen program at YellowBelly.
With a bachelor degree in biology from Memorial University, including focused course work in botany and plant physiology, and nearly three years working as a research gardener at MUN’s Botanical Garden, Mena was uniquely qualified to make the most of the $9,000 cultivator.
“I love tinkering with plants. I find them simple, I know the metabolic pathways, I understand them,” he says. “They don’t talk, but they say loads. They’re the strong silent type.
“This stuff to me is not even work. I come in and this is fun time.”
It’s fun, but it’s also serious business and Mena treats it as such. In addition to keeping detailed growing logs, maintaining material safety data sheets, managing grow cycles and employing a strict cleaning schedule, he is also experimenting with grow formulas and different light spectrums.
“This thing is beautiful, it’s automated, it does a lot of the work for you,” he says of the cultivator, “but you still need that human touch.”
The early results of the program have shown so much promise that Flynn and Mena are considering plans to expand the operation and grow everything from tomatoes to lettuce to eggplant and cold crops like cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
“When the idea comes to fruition it’ll be amazing and I’d love to be at the forefront because I know I would do an amazing job for him because it’s a passion for me,” Mena said.