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.
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.