Diners at the Bunker, a Vietnamese restaurant in Brooklyn, may not realise that the mushrooms in their bánh mì were grown in a blue-tinted, spaceship-looking “mini farm” underneath their seats. But it’s just one of a growing number of plug-in fungi farms mushrooming in New York City.
Smallhold, the company that created the idea, grows around 100 pounds of various mushroom types a week, then distributes them three-quarters grown to climate-controlled, do-it-yourself mini “farms” around the city. The mushrooms finish growing within the automated units, while a remote technician adjusts humidity, airflow and temperature, offering chefs on-the-spot, fresh and self-replenishing batches of a food item that has a short shelf-life.
The units could also work for perishables such as lettuce and herbs but the company is currently focused on catching the rising fashion for exotic mushrooms. “Mushrooms are amazing. Mushrooms are the future,” co-founder Andrew Carter gushed to the Guardian. “When you usually find them, they tend to be really gross looking on the shelves because they’ve been sitting in trucks. This way, we can give them [the customers] a brand-new experience with mushrooms.”
They currently sell nine mushroom varieties, including oyster, lion’s mane, shiitake and pioppino.
Smallhold has been distributing their farms through partner restaurants and markets, including Manhattan’s Mission Chinese restaurant, Kimchee Market in Greenpoint and a Whole Foods store in Bridgewater, New Jersey.
Smallhold farms also happen to look very pretty, with weird mushroom formations glowing under nightclub-style lighting. Danny Bowien, the chef and owner of Mission Chinese Food, told Vogue in an interview that many of his customers think the units in his restaurant are art. The launch of the first unit in the Whole Foods store saw a similar reaction. Confused shoppers crowded four-deep around the mushrooms.
But Carter and his co-founder and college friend Adam DeMartino insist it’s more than just an aesthetic trend. They argue the cultivation process is more sustainable than traditional mushroom farms, using about 96% less water, creating 40 times the output per square foot and less food waste.
The organic material the mushrooms grow in is also sustainable, made from recycled materials such as sawdust, coffee grounds and wheat berries.
Setting up a mini-farm is not cheap, prices start at $3,500, and there are cheaper generic indoor grow units available. Home Depot currently sells a small cardboard miniature organic mushroom farm for $39.99 per box.
The pair acknowledge they may soon face competition, but for now they appear to be something of a status symbol. As one local blogger put it, it’s like they’ve created the “vegan version of the lobster tank”.