The north wall inside The Roosevelt 2.0 in Ybor City once was a blank canvas of old, exposed bricks covered with a thin veil of white paint.
Now it’s a farm.
Dangling like a frozen green waterfall, stems of rainbow char, Genovese basil, cilantro, arugula and Italian parsley hang vertically from what amounts to a living wall, nourished by snaking lines of an irrigation system and panels of artificial lighting.
It’s an idea that Dave Smiles of Uriah’s Urban Farms says is ripe for Tampa’s restaurant scene, which in recent years has seen more chefs starting their own growing operations.
Smiles, who prefers to be called Farmer Dave, developed the growing system to give chefs and restaurant owners a way to close the gap between the farm and the table. The system promises a reduction in the waste of overbuying, a drop in costs, the ability to grow specialized ingredients and use fresher herbs and vegetables.
“If we can create enough demand, it could be a model for off-the-grid food production,” he says. “It can be used in schools. It could even go on to help nourish people in Second- and Third-World countries.”
The technology Smiles developed, which previously had been used for decorative purposes, uses 8-foot-tall metal panels with a grid system in which seedlings are planted and then irrigated. Dripping water in a regulated sprinkler from the top of the panels, the moisture finds its way through gravity to the bottom of the growing squares.
Instead of seeping away from roots the way it would in a horizontal farm, water stays in the artificial vertical ecosystem, moving down into other plants. Artificial lamps on a motorized track move back and forth in front of the panels to provide the light each plant needs in order to grow.
For a fee, Smiles then takes the panels off the walls every few days and distributes them to other restaurants and clients so they can be used onsite to supplement produce supplies. As each panel is harvested or begins to wilt, he rotates a new grid of plants into place, usually about twice a week.
He charges $40 per panel for greens and herbs. Each panel provides about 2 pounds of produce.
The idea of restaurants farming their own ingredients has been a tradition in Tampa since the 1970s, when Bern Laxer started an 8-acre farm in Town ’N Country to supply his restaurant, Bern’s Steak House and, later, SideBern’s on South Howard Avenue.
The farm, which has since moved across Waters Avenue to a smaller property, was built to generate herbs and vegetables for the steakhouse’s menu. New employees still work at the farm as part of their training, but Bern’s chef Hab Hamde and SideBern’s chef Chad Johnson are frequent visitors.
Smiles says Johnson and Bern’s owner David Laxer hired him on Thursday to install a 20-foot length of living wall for the new Epicurean boutique hotel being built across from the steakhouse. He also will install and maintain decorative panels throughout the hotel, including the front entrance and along the pool area. The contract is expected to help Smiles move his growing operation into a larger space, possibly in Ybor City.
The panels already are featured at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, where executive chef Byron Gabel installed them at two of the hotel’s restaurants, P.D. Browns and Armani’s.
“At P.D. Brown’s, we’re mowing down a panel at a time,” Gabel says.
At Armani’s, the vertical panels are propped on a stand close to the anti-pasto bar so a chef can harvest fresh arugula, basil and lettuce for salads.
Gabel maintains two gardens outside the hotel, where rosemary and mint are grown for use in cocktails and in a Crème Anglaise made for serving with flourless chocolate cakes.
Before Armani’s rooftop terrace was redesigned last year, chefs could walk out to a planter and pick herbs. One of the gardens downstairs now replaces those planters, and the living wall from Farmer Dave gives them immediate access in the dining room.
“If we can do it in an easy way that isn’t labor-intensive, it saves so much money,” Gabel says. “You pick what you need. The herbs haven’t been cut, so they can just sit in the walk-in cooler until the next delivery.”
At Pelagia Trattoria restaurant inside the Renaissance Tampa International Hotel, the kitchen spends $30,000 a year on lettuce alone. In late May, the modern Italian restaurant built a 30-foot-square screened growing house on the hotel’s roof with a vertical growing system installed by Urban Oasis Farm in Tampa. The project cost about $11,000 ($8,000 for the screened enclosure, $3,000 for the farming material).
Chef Andrew Basch began growing herbs in containers on the restaurant’s downstairs patio about two years ago. He convinced hotel general manager Jim Bartholomay and assistant general manager Dominic Provenzano that a larger operation would make economic sense and produce fresher ingredients.
On Tuesday, the restaurant will plant its first crop of romaine lettuce, which will take about 26 days to reach harvest. The baby romaine will go into Pelagia’s signature Caesar fondue salad, in which the leaves are flash-grilled and then covered with a cheese dressing.
“The cool part is that the way it was built will make it easier to add more enclosures if we want,” Basch says.
Chef Ferrell Alvarez says he plans to install one of Smiles’ living walls at the new Rooster & The Till restaurant he is opening this summer with Ty Rodriguez on Florida Avenue.
Alvarez discovered the vertical farming concept while working as a chef at Mise en Place. Smiles was trying to find restaurants in the area that would be interested in installing the panels.
Alvarez worked with Urban Oasis and Southern Food Alliance to source herbs and vegetables while cooking at Café Dufrain. He plans to continue using those companies while pulling fresh herbs and lettuce from the living wall for use at the bar and in recipes. The goal, Alvarez says, is to use 100 percent local products.
“Whether it’s possible all year round, especially during the hot months, is to be determined,” he says. “Here we are coming into June and Dave still has things producing.”
Alvarez says he was awed by the flavors of what the wall produces.
“I like fresh. I like local. I like tasty,” he says. “If the end result is good, we’re good to go. You have to be an intelligent businessperson; can’t just be throwing money away.”