The urban farming company Brick Street Farms and the Naked Farmer restaurant have each built a strong presence in St. Petersburg, connecting the community to sustainable food sources. And each are expanding their mission.
Jordan Johnson, founder and CEO of Naked Farmer, and Brick Street Farms Account Manager Briant Wildes were among those highlighting innovations in the local food scene during Tuesday’s “Restaurant of the Future is Here” event in Tampa. The talk was hosted by the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator, at the Bryan Glazer Family JCC campus.
The Naked Farmer, which has a location on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg and another in Water Street Tampa, is one of Brick Street Farms’ largest customers.
Brick Street Farms converts shipping containers into hydroponic farms that grow leafy greens and herbs in a technology-based, climate-controlled environment. The container units house rows of various crops that are harvested year-round.
“The partnership between Naked Farmer and Brick Street Farms started when we were opening our first location two years ago in the middle of the pandemic,” Johnson said on stage. “After a series of phone calls and farm visits, we found they were an incredible partner literally in our back yard, just a few miles away from our first restaurant. Today, our restaurants source hundreds of pounds from Brick Street Farms every week.”
Naked Farmer works year-round with Brick Street Farms, while seasonally working with different farmers.
“It’s easy to open up a new restaurant and have Sysco trucks go to that location,” Johnson said. “It’s harder to go out [sourcing farms], and we spend eight to nine months building our direct farm supply chain. It matters and is important. It’s a more sustainable way to source food.”
In two to three weeks, Johnson announced, Naked Farmer will open a site in Coral Gables and will be entering an “aggressive expansion in Miami and Fort Lauderdale” over the next year and a half.
Meanwhile, Brick Street Farms has opened its first urban farm hub open to the public at 199 20th St. South. The group held a soft opening for the market last week and is preparing for a grand opening.
“Our farms are very urban, they are in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg,” Wildes said. “When you think of that in terms of farmland, 68 acres [of produce on farmland] is what we are doing on a third of a city block, it is really amazing, and it’s accessible.”
Each 40-foot shipping container produces the equivalent amount of produce a traditional farm can generate on two to three acres.
The containers use 15 gallons of water per day, which is less than the amount of water typically used in an average shower.
At the new onsite market, customers can purchase produce directly, and it remains fresh in the fridge for up to two weeks.
Wildes explained that Brick Street Farms can vertically expand at the new site by adding more containers within the same footprint.
“We are scalable. Our farms are all individual units, we can create eight unit or if we decide we need 10, we can put them up,” she said. “Our mission is to bring these farms in cities all over the country, to have urban agriculture in the community and source directly with restaurant partners and grocers.”
Brick Street Farms plans to roll out a second location, but did not disclose the address.
While the concept of restaurants utilizing apps and websites for customers to easily place orders and make payments isn’t novel, Johnson said Naked Farmer is using that tech to zero in on customer feedback.
“We’ve put every guest from Naked Farmer into their own unique guest journey [segment]. If we learn you frequently order Brick Street Farm’s greens as one of your sides, then if we are bringing a new item that we think folks who enjoy those greens would like, we can talk with you about the new dish we are bringing into the menu,” he said.
For Brick Street Farms, innovation can be found in every square inch inside its containers that are outfitted in the latest tech with LED-simulated sunlight, and water filtration and nutrient supply systems.
The containers are also equipped with 120 different sensors that farmers can operate from their phones.
“A lot of those sensors can self-correct themselves,” Wildes said, stating the emergence of new tech increases the proficiency of each unit.
“With this new farm we opened, each container outputs 30% more than the previous farms [containers] so our designs are only becoming more profitable, sustainable and also producing more quality produce,” she said.
On Facebook, Brick Street Farms also announced it launched a home delivery program to start delivering produce to specific zip codes in the St. Pete area.
How Fresh Kitchen, the Columbia leverage innovation
The executives spoke at a separate panel discussion during the event. Their responses have been edited for clarity.
Andrea Gonzmart Williams, fifth generation owner of the Columbia Restaurant: “During the pandemic, we shut down. We did not do the takeout orders until after we reopened because we didn’t have the confidence that we could do it properly. For a company that is 117 years old, it took a lot of convincing.”
The Columbia, which owns the Goody Goody Burgers concept, an iconic burger restaurant in Tampa, has been using a QR code for payments.
Daniel Meretsky, head of technology of the Ciccio Restaurant Group, which owns Fresh Kitchen, Cali and other concepts: “We created a tech depot to supply our restaurants. When it comes to online ordering, this has been a huge success for Fresh Kitchen. It’s half of our business. Our restaurants are remodeled from the inside with our own online ordering system, we are also partnering with third parties such as Uber Eats.”
Anne Rollings, an executive manager of the Gecko’s Hospitality Group, which owns Gecko’s Bar and Grill in Sarasota, Dockside Waterfront Grill in Venice and other concepts: “We had to furlough 500 people in one day (due to the pandemic). All of the community partners through our charitable programs came back to help us. We fed our employees and provided access to mental health services. We have brought everyone back six months after the furloughs. We are a third-family generation restaurant group, and we were fortunate. We are always vigilant in working with culinary schools to develop the next generation of hospitality workers and let them know it’s not your grandfather’s hospitality business anymore.”
Regarding tech, Gecko’s also uses a Servi robot from Bear Robotics that serves customers.