Farm in a Box
In the seven months since Ritz-Carlton Naples added the Grow House Salad to the menu at Terrazza restaurant, it has become one of the resort's most popular items. The simple salad features pickled carrots, poached pears, and smoked bacon on a bed of Lacinato kale grown in a mini indoor farm on hotel grounds.
The farm, dubbed the Grow House, is in a recycled refrigerated/insulated shipping container; a computer program controls light, temperature, and moisture levels, allowing the resort to grow hydroponic lettuce, herbs, and microgreens, with no soil or sunlight required.
"It's extremely energy efficient and allows us to produce a product that is far superior to what we can get from our vendors," says George Fistrovich, executive chef and farmer for Ritz-Carlton Naples.
After learning about a self-contained indoor farm in a shopping center, the Ritz-Carlton contacted its developer, Clinton, North Carolina-based Williamson Greenhouses, to pilot the Grow House in Naples. The goals: Hit corporate targets to improve efficiencies and reduce environmental impact. Growing fresh greens in a recycled shipping container also offers another benefit.
"Our guests want to have a story about where their food comes from," says Corporate Executive Chef Rainer Zinngrebe.
Menu items featuring produce from the Grow House are highlighted through inhouse promotions, menu icons, and server talking points, offering a tangible connection between the food on the table and the metal container where it was grown.
As news of the offbeat indoor farm spread, guests began asking for tours, and staff are happy to oblige.
"At every property where we have a farm or a beehive, guests are very interested," Zinngrebe says. "As an organization, we're highly focused on being more responsible about what we procure and serve to guests, and we want to show off our efforts."
Currently, the shipping container produces spinach, arugula, cabbage, Bibb and romaine lettuce, cilantro, and several varieties of microgreens for three onsite restaurants and poolside dining. Produce from the Grow House is also available in banquet services on a limited basis. Over time, the resort will expand its farm by adding more shipping containers.
Ritz-Carlton also plans to install recycled shipping container farms at several more properties, including three undisclosed locations in the United States and resorts in Aruba, Grand Cayman, and Bahrain, all expected to be operational later this year.
"At some of our resorts, we have importation challenges with lettuce, herbs, and microgreens; we import them via air freight or shipping cargo, which is more costly, and, by the time it gets to us, the produce is not as fresh," Zinngrebe explains. "Being able to grow produce year round in an area that wouldn't otherwise allow for that is an interesting proposition for us."
Thanks to its high-tech design, the eco-friendly indoor farm can be set up almost anywhere, including rooftops and parking garages.
"You don't need sunlight or soil, and there are no environmental constraints to deal with, such as extreme temperatures, flooding, or drought," explains Tripp Williamson of Williamson Greenhouses. "You can increase your efficiencies, and the yield is a lot more consistent."
Despite its adaptability, the concept won't work for all Ritz-Carlton properties. "You need a property that can handle the volume," Zinngrebe says. "At the moment, it only makes sense for us [to install the Grow House] at hotels that can handle 3,500 heads of lettuce per growing cycle."
Ritz-Carlton Naples presents the ultimate challenge for the Grow House. The hot, humid temperatures and ocean-adjacent location would make it impossible to establish a traditional farm on resort grounds. Inside the shipping container, crops thrive.
"To be growing lettuce next to the ocean when it's 100 degrees and 100% humidity is phenomenal," says Fistrovich.
Growing produce onsite also allows the hotel to have a significant impact on its carbon footprint. The self-contained unit uses a fraction of the water used to grow traditional crops, requires no packaging, and creates zero emissions for shipping, while providing guests with fresh, local produce.
While the process is environmentally friendly and efficient, there is a learning curve. When Fistrovich planted his first crops in the Grow House, he failed to plan for the volume he produced.
"We harvested 3,000 heads of lettuce at once," he recalls. "The whole hotel, including the staff cafeteria, was overrun with lettuce."
As Fistrovich has gotten more familiar with growing cycles, he's been better able to meet demand, planting, and harvesting based on occupancy, not production capacity.
Currently, Fistrovich manages the Grow House solo, devoting about 30 hours per week to sowing seeds, tending to plants, and harvesting, and is in the process of training another staff member to assist.
Zinngrebe believes the Grow House represents the possibility for another kind of reward for the Ritz-Carlton or other hotels that adopt the farm-in-a-box concept.
"In some locations, it might be possible to grow more than you need," he says. "You could sell the excess produce to neighboring hotels, restaurants, or even at farmers' markets, which opens up a whole new revenue stream."
Jodi Helmer is a journalist covering food, drink, and sustainable living.
By the Numbers
From the outside, the Grow House looks just like countless other metal shipping containers. Inside, it's a high-tech, environmentally friendly, produce-growing machine with the potential to revolutionize small-scale farming. Here are some of the essential stats:
Size: 320 square feet Vertical growing space: 2,200 square feet Production capacity: Up to 12,000 pounds of lettuce and herbs, 84 tons of microgreens, and 7,000 pounds of strawberries (equivalent to one acre of farmland) per year Time from seed to harvest: 28 to 42 days, depending on the variety of lettuce, herbs, or microgreens Energy consumption: 175 kWh per day Water use: 90% less than conventional farming or greenhouse cultivation Fertilizer use: 80% less than conventional farming or greenhouse cultivation Pesticides: Zero Humidity: 65 to 70% Sensors: 18; growing conditions such as temperature, humidity, and light can all be controlled from a smartphone Expansion capacity: Up to five shipping containers can be stacked to expand the farm without taking up additional ground space