Forbes | A Safer Romaine? BrightFarms Looks To Scale Its Brand Of Greenhouse Salads
It’s three days before Thanksgiving, and the news just hit nationwide. Another romaine lettuce recall threatens turmoil in the produce industry – and for the second year in a row, it’s all happening in the reaches of America’s most indulgent holiday.
Paul Lightfoot is literally watching from the sidelines. He’s at the headquarters of a Midwest food retailer for a meeting – by happenchance – but now, that conference room has turned war room as teams work to initiate protocols to pull affected products from the shelves.
Lightfoot doesn’t necessarily have to worry, however. As founder and president of BrightFarms, an indoor farming company that grows salads in high-tech, computer controlled greenhouses, his product isn’t impacted (the latest recall included romaine harvested in Salinas, California). In fact, within minutes, he can attest to a spike in orders, and BrightFarms salads will soon fill up empty store space.
Lightfoot would argue that lettuce grown indoors is healthier, tastier, looks better, is more nutritious, and, expectedly, for customers in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, fresher than long-distance, field-grown produce, which hails mostly from California and Arizona. But he can also plug that it’s a safer product, now, too.
It’s all part of the pitch as BrightFarms looks to scale – doubling its number of greenhouses, where it grows spinach, romaine, arugula and more – over the next few years.
The company plans to grow from four greenhouses – construction is wrapping on a fifth in a matter of weeks – to roughly 10 total in three years. Its employee count could stretch from 100 to more than 400, Lightfoot says.
It hasn’t always been easy. Lightfoot, former founder of Foodline, a venture-backed software company that provides customer and reservations information technology to restaurants, and once-CEO of BSG (and its predecessor, AL Systems), which provided enterprise supply chain software solutions, joined BrightFarms in 2011. BrightFarms started growing commercially in 2013, he said. But the company didn’t really hit its stride – by “nailing production methods and SOP’s,” he said – until three years later.
“There were years of suffering and failures and learning to really get it right,” he said. “For example, baby spinach is devilishly difficult to grow in hydroponic conditions, and it took us probably four years of R&D to make that possible. At this point though, we really have a scientific and proven set of culture and methods.”
Hydroponics is increasingly growing traction as an environmentally friendly and profitable technology. BrightFarms, to that former point, claims its methods use 90% less land, 80% less water and require 95% less shipping fuel than long-distance, field-grown produce. Each BrightFarms greenhouse uses a mineral-based nutrient solution that allows produce to grow without soil; the design of the hydroponic systems also allows for water recirculation, meaning there’s no agricultural runoff. BrightFarms doesn’t use any pesticides and relies mostly on natural sunlight – its greenhouses are topped with glass roofs.
To the latter, the company has been mum about its revenue, but last year, it made the annual Inc. 5000 list, ranking No. 571 among the country’s fastest-growing private companies. BrightFarms was the only produce company to make the list, and it ranked 22nd among food and beverage brands. BrightFarms supplies some of America’s largest grocers with salads, like Kroger, Walmart and Ahold Delhaize, which includes brands like Giant, Food Lion and more.
“We see an enormous amount of wide-open market share,” Lightfood said. “The product, I think, is structurally better than the product we compete with, and consumers are really going for it.”
Greenhouses are highly automated, Lightfoot said. Systems work to deliver just the right amount of warmth, humidity, carbon dioxide and oxygen. By utilizing camera scanning and data science, BrightFarms is constantly studying ways to reduce utilities and improve yields and quality. The company claims it’s the freshest local produce available, delivered within 24 hours of harvest year-round.
“Essentially, we’re replacing what’s kind of always been a long and complex supply chain,” Lightfoot said. “The salad industry is very centralized from the West Coast, and for places in the Midwest, that’s a long journey. And with salads, which are two-week shelf life products, it’s a really big deal.”
The biggest challenge for BrightFarms is scale. The New York-based company, which is private equity backed – its largest investor is Cox Enterprises, a communications, automotive and media giant – currently operates greenhouses in Wilmington, Ohio; Rochelle, Illinois; Culpeper County, Virginia; and Bucks County, Pennsylvania.