Every morning at work, Wanderley Nunes dos Santos, general manager of a fast food burger joint in the Boston suburbs, has the unusual task of heading out back and picking tomatoes. The produce gets washed, chopped and put into a "local tomato salad" that the store serves. Sometimes it's crushed to make a salsa condiment. If the tomatoes are big enough, they might be sliced for toppings.
All in all, B.Good, a regional chain in the Northeast, projects that it could harvest about 3,000 pounds of tomatoes this year, in addition to 500 pounds of greens, from gardens adjoining two of its store locations.
The gardens began as a quirky experiment for a brand that markets itself for sustainable and healthy fare, but after an initial planting on a rooftop parking garage above its downtown Boston store, the company has managed to make the economics of growing veggies make sense. Now, as it expands from its dozen locations and starts franchising, B.Good plans to make gardens a permanent part of its business model. Its first-ever franchisee is already setting one up.
"It used to be hard [to run the gardens]," says B.Good co-founder Jon Olinto. "Now it’s easy. It has to kind of run itself."
Rooftop gardening and fast food don’t exactly mix. Olinto notes that the National Restaurant Association put "restaurant gardens and hyperlocal sourcing" as number 7 on its top 20 trends list, but mostly that’s a buzz word. "I don’t see chains trying to roll it out. I don’t think McDonald’s will open a garden." But for a sustainable brand, B.Good’s story shows how they might be worth the effort.
B.Good does save some money growing vegetables, though the several thousands in savings so far certainly won’t make or break the business.
"If you just ran financial models, you can definitely save a little bit of money," says Olinto. But, he says, "I think you have to take a more macro view...it reinforces what our brand is supposed to be about. Our customers will get really crazy about it. It’s an awesome thing."
After an initial investment to set up beds and a number of learning experiences, the chain now spends $2,000 a year on maintenance and supplies, which isn’t much considering it normally pays $4 a pound to buy tomatoes from a local farm. There are risks—the tomato harvest may be less than expected this year due to a fungus at one location. And the company has also gotten lucky. Its landlords support the project (the company leases space), and the parking garage even lets them use a bit of roof space for free.
The gardens don't work in all store locations. At one new store in a mall, B.Good actually got some space to put in a garden at the front—which would have been great for marketing—but later found out the irrigation wasn’t going to work. But Olinto says that B.Good will garden where it can. Today, school classes even take field trips to its garden in downtown Boston.