Emerging Brands

At Neon Greens, the lettuce is extra, super local. It was grown next door

This new concept coming to St. Louis will have two hydroponic vertical farms attached to the restaurant where fresh lettuces will be harvested just feet away from diners.
Neon Greens' menu will include signature salads and build-your-own options. | Photo courtesy of Neon Greens.

The phrase “farm-to-table” has been overused to the point of becoming hollow in the restaurant world, but Josh Smith is about to give it new meaning.

Smith is the owner of Neon Greens, a fast-casual salad and soup concept scheduled to open later this month in St. Louis. It’s a restaurant where the lettuce, kale and mizuna are so fresh, they might be served minutes after harvest, coming from farms right next door.

But these are not conventional farms.

Neon Greens will showcase the use of vertical farming, indoor hydroponic growing units about the size of a shipping container that can generate hundreds of pounds of produce year-round without the need for pesticides, weed killer or fertilizer.

Vertical farm

A view from inside the farm at Neon Greens. | Photo courtesy of Neon Greens.

Smith has two farms—modular units designed by a pioneer in the vertical farming world, Freight Farms—which are attached to a harvesting facility adjacent to the restaurant dining room. Lettuce and other produce are harvested throughout the day and moves along a conveyor belt into the kitchen, where it heads to a chilling station before being served.

For Smith, who has a background in theater and set design in TV and film, it’s about telling a story about transparency in the supply chain.

“I could spend a whole day talking about the ills of centralized food in this country, how it doesn’t benefit farmers, it doesn’t benefit consumers, and it doesn’t benefit the government either,” he said. “I want people to have a little more of an understanding of where food comes from.”

He also wants people to know what a truly fresh salad tastes like.

Smith is originally from St. Louis, but he lived in New York for years, a city inundated with salad concepts that “weren’t necessarily serving the best lettuce I thought they could get,” he said.

Neon Greens will start out with four types of greens produced on site: There will be Sweet Crisp, which Smith said is beautiful and crisp and holds dressing well; and Green Oak Leaf, which has “perfect little petals” that are like butter lettuce in texture.

The farms will also produce a buttery baby kale and mizuna, a Japanese mustard green that’s mildly spicy. Together, he calls them “the dream team of lettuce.”

On the menu will be three seasonal salads, and a build-your-own option. One of the seasonal salads will be created by a local chef, and the first to partner with Neon Greens is restaurant Grace Meat and Three, which has developed a smoked chicken salad for the menu as an LTO. Neon Greens’ salads will average about $15.

Neon Greens will also feature two soups: one seasonal option that will vary and the signature soup, which will, of course, be green. It’s a variation on a Thai soup with a coconut base and lots of herbs, alliums and Thai spice chiles that give it a verdant punch.

Beverages will include a local kombucha and sparkling hibiscus tea, as well as canned coffee, Topo Chico and Mexican Coke.

For dessert: an oat milk-based soft serve with two flavors served in a twist, matcha and Thai-basil.

Neon Greens

A rendering of Neon Greens, which is finalizing construction with the goal of opening in mid-March. | Rendering courtesy of Neon Greens.

While Smith gets this first unit open, he is also working on designs for potential future iterations, he said.

“This proof of concept will definitely chart the course for the next direction,” said Smith.

Smith is not considering franchising. But he does believe the concept could be multiplied.

Vertical farming eliminates so many potential supply chain challenges for concepts that depend heavily on fresh produce. There are no transportation hiccups, and the produce is less vulnerable to weather, bugs or spikes in price.

Sure, the all-electric farms could lose power in a bad storm, but Smith said the lettuce has proven to be pretty resilient, even if power is off for a couple of days.

And there’s less food waste. Harvesting can be slowed to accommodate fluctuation in demand. If business is slow for a few days, for example, those plants can simply stay alive on the wall until business picks up.

Other chains have tapped the idea of hydroponic containers or growing walls. Los Angeles-based Tender Greens, for example, was one of the first to serve lettuce grown in containers on restaurant patios, but at the time the amount of lettuce produced was limited.

At Neon Greens, each farm has four growing walls, and each wall can produce about 100 lbs. of lettuce in a growing cycle.

“It’s small, but mighty,” he said.

For Smith, who earlier in his life was designing sets for shows like “Godfather of Harlem,” and “The Flight Attendant,” developing Neon Greens is a type of stage craft that could inspire real change in food production.

“I love the idea of a salad concept starting in the Midwest and growing from there,” he said. “Not to sound cheeky, but we will establish roots in St. Louis and see where it goes.”

 

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