Will vertical farms become central to food retail and restaurant interiors?

Various forms of technology-enabled indoor farming have been around for well over a decade. The start-up sector really got hold of the idea at the beginning of the noughties, with global investment then surging from under $50 million to close to $300 million between 2016 and 2017 according to research by Agfunder. Most early implementations have thus far been back of house, at industrial grow sites that serve local grocery operations or in restaurant kitchens. That now seems to be changing, with various forms of vertical-farm infrastructure being employed in customer-facing contexts across the retail and hospitality industries.

At the start of 2019, British department store brand John Lewis announced that it was exploring the possibility of integrating vertical farm modules into its Waitrose supermarket chain stores in collaboration with agri-tech start-up LettUs Grow. Come September, rival Marks & Spencer jumped ahead of them with the trial of several units from German company Infarm at its refurbished Clapham location. M&S plans to fit six more stores with vertical farms by the end of 2020. Customers will be able to choose from a selection of fresh herbs such as mint, curly parsley and mountain coriander. Infarm, which has already partnered with several grocery chains on the continent, raised $100 million in series B funding last summer and is using that money to expand into new markets, with the US and Japan to follow the UK.

Header and above: Marks & Spencer trialled several units from German company Infarm at its refurbished Clapham location. Photos: Steve Ager

Putting vertical farms front of house offers brands manifold benefits, providing transparency of production – currently a key consumer driver – alongside a significant sustainability advantage over traditional food-supply chains. Infarm claims that two m2 of instore farm can replace the output of 400 m2 of farmland, all while using 75 per cent less fertilizer and 90 per cent less water. Food miles are virtually eradicated altogether. With this in mind, it would be safe to assume that food retail design is increasingly going to have to accommodate such production-cum-retail systems.

What is less discussed, but equally valuable, particularly in hospitality settings, are vertical farms’ aesthetics and experiential benefits. The potential to have staff, or even customers themselves, harvest produce table-side offers a variety of new ways to activate a dining space. The opportunity to meaningfully and holistically incorporate additional biophilic elements into restaurant interiors is another clear dividend. High-end restaurants have recently explored this idea, too: Roganic’s new Hong Kong outpost installed grow units in its dining room, in much the same way as its wine cabinets. Fast-casual outlets like the recently opened Weilands Wellfood in Berlin have adopted a similar approach, showing that the idea is impacting various price points.

 

Drinks brand The London Essence Company created a whole back bar from Evogro vertical farms at its recent London Cocktail Week pop-up.

Meanwhile, drinks brand The London Essence Company created a whole back bar from Evogro vertical farms at its recent London Cocktail Week pop-up. ‘We've seen a definite shift over the last couple of years, with more of our customers choosing to put their plant-growing cabinets front-of-house. Today it's about 50:50 between front and back,’ says Evogro founder Jason Hirst. ‘People used to show the freshness of their shellfish by having tanks front-of-house. Now they can show the freshness of their plants.’

While there remain challenges to implementation, with current units retaining a highly functional appearance and using an array of brightly coloured LEDs to stimulate plant growth, a forecast of 20+ per cent CAGR in the vertical farming industry over the next three to four years will doubtless push many more of these systems into public view. 

This piece was originally published in our January/February 2020 issue, Frame 132. Get your copy here.

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Frame 132

The Jan/Feb issue of Frame explores how workspaces can support mental health. Burnout is on the rise, and it’s now officially been labelled an ‘occupational phenomenon’. On the upside, mental health is becoming a less taboo topic and employers are beginning to realize it takes more than an in-office gym or a few free yoga sessions to keep their workforce fully functional. So, how can spatial design contribute to the cause? We explore four aspects of the modern office that prioritize people over productivity, ranging from wellness-focused concepts such as recharge rooms to biophilic spaces filled with calming vegetation and tech-enabled services for depression treatment.

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