A 30-minute boat ride from downtown Boston, an abandoned farm plot is becoming a new experiment in sourcing for a local fast-casual restaurant chain.
Next week, B.good—an East Coast chain that sells salad bowls, burgers, and smoothies—will start planting rows of kale, bok choy, herbs, and other produce on Long Island, an island in Boston Harbor. For at least one crop, chili peppers, the small farm may be able to grow enough to supply the kitchens of the entire chain of 31 restaurants.
"We want to know our producers, and if there's ever an opportunity to grow our own food, we want to do it," says Jon Olinto, co-founder of B.good.
It's part of a broader trend in the world of healthy fast food: rather than only buying food from local farmers, grow it yourself. Dig Inn, a restaurant chain that started in New York City, plans to purchase a 50-100 acre farm in upstate New York this year. At the California-based Tender Greens, aeroponic towers grow greens for lunch directly next to dining tables.
B.good started 12 years ago with the goal to "take the food we had grown up on and make it what we called 'real,'" Olinto says. At first, that meant making burgers and fries from scratch. But as the company learned more about sourcing, and began working with local farmers, they also started small experiments in growing food themselves.
At a restaurant at a converted gas station in the Boston suburb of Brookline, they lined the roof in kiddie pools filled with organic compost and soil, and planted tomatoes. "Once they actually started to grow, and people could see the tomatoes from the street, we saw their connection to fresh produce that was grown on site," he says.
Later, they began growing kale in an unused alley next to a restaurant. In 2015, they started buying kale from an urban farmer using a hydroponic shipping container in Boston, and then began operating their own kale-filled shipping container under a local highway.
The island farm seemed like a natural next step. The island has an unusual history; for years, it served as the site of homeless shelters, and a farm next to the shelters helped feed residents and doubled as a job training program. But when the rickety bridge leading from Boston to the island was declared unsafe and demolished in 2014, the farm and shelters were abandoned.
The idea for the new farm came from the director of a summer camp for at-risk youth that still uses the island, who reached out to the restaurant. "He wants to see the island come back to life," says Olinto. B.good is now restoring the farm in a partnership with Connors Family Office, which operates the camp, and with the Boston Public Health Commission, which is leasing the land. A local urban farming company, Green City Growers, will help maintain the farm.
B.good sees it as a real source of produce for the restaurants. "This isn't a novelty, this isn't a gimmick," says Olinto. Still, a one-acre farm can only supply a tiny fraction of their supplies; even Dig Inn, with a potential 100-acre farm, won't grow the 250,000 pounds of kale it goes through every year. For Dig Inn, owning a farm is partly a way to make it easier to connect the restaurant's chefs directly with the food they use, and to connect with customers who want to visit.
For B.good, too, the farm is partly a way to connect with the community. Campers will visit the farm to learn about urban agriculture, and 75% of the produce will be given to the camp (and the camper's families). Throughout the summer, any of B.good's customers who are interested will be able to take a boat out to the farm and spend a day planting or harvesting.
The chain also hopes to keep expanding the amount of food it grows. "Given the scale needed for all of our restaurants, we’re proud to continue to maintain our partnerships with local farmers we know and trust," says Olinto. "But growing even more of our own food is certainly a part of our future."
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