Can a Central Texas software company feed 220 employees salad at lunch with aeroponic pods?
Austin-based uShip is about to find out.
In May, the company installed 10 eight-foot pods, each with 36 seedlings of leafy greens and herbs in the outdoor space at its headquarters at 205 E. Riverside Drive.
The pods are in the process of producing 360 lettuce heads on a rotating basis to feed uShip employees, who gather daily for a complimentary lunch prepared by company chefs.
Uship is the first company kitchen in Austin to feed employees farm-to-table (or tower-to-table) through an on-site aeroponic system that is managed by Lettuce Grow, a public benefit corporation based in Los Angeles.
Why is uShip, which runs an online shipping marketplace, doing this?
CEO Mike Williams says: “It’s never been more important to know where your food comes from, so we’re getting innovative with our produce, just as we’ve been innovative with logistics. We’ve seen healthy employees are happy employees -- it doesn’t get any fresher than serving produce farm-to-table, just 50 steps away.”
The aeroponic system pumps water to the top of the tower and then drips it onto the roots of the plants for a few minutes every half an hour. Lettuce Grow says aeroponic farming uses 95 percent less water than traditional farming in the ground.
Since the uShip installation in early May, two main harvests of butter lettuce, romaine, basil, chives, bok choy, arugula, chard and more have taken place.
Uship executive chef Ella Adams, who came up with the pod idea, envisions her kitchen being entirely self-sustaining on greens for lunches provided to employees Monday through Friday, as well as breakfast on Fridays.
Adams said employees are excited about growing greens right in the company’s backyard.
“They watch it grow from their office windows and they watch me pick it,” she said. “Everyone feels like they’re a part of it, and it reconnects people with food. It’s so different than the way produce usually arrives. The average head of lettuce travels 1,500 miles and is 10 days old by the time you get it.”
Meeting Adams’ goal of growing all greens at uShip will require 400 heads of lettuce per week. Right now, the pods can produce a maximum of 360, so Adams is hoping to add more pods.
Adams and Chris Cerveny, Lettuce Grow’s head of horticulture, plan to expand the types of greens and herbs produced at uShip, but they don’t plan to try tomatoes or other produce that takes up more space and wouldn’t have the volume and repeat harvest needed by the kitchen.
The uShip installation is Lettuce Grow’s first Austin project, but the organization has hundreds of pods installed in California, including at the University of Southern California, Otium Restaurant in Los Angeles and the Marriott Hotel in Anaheim.
Uship declined to comment on how much it has invested in the system. Costs for aeroponic systems vary widely, and can range from several hundred dollars for a small family yard to several thousand dollars for large-scale farms used by hotels and universities.
The leadership team at uShip has long shown a willingness to make investments to foster a strong company culture.
Last August, the 15-year-old company moved into a new headquarters that features a modern, open collaborative workspace, a gourmet kitchen and dining area, shower facilities, locker rooms and storage areas for bicycles.
Dogs are welcome in the office, and there are always a few roaming the halls. Outdoor decks and an outdoor seating area offer a view of East Bouldin Creek, while a game area provides a shuffleboard table, a ping pong table, TVs and arcade games.
Williams said the perks offered by uShip help the company recruit new workers. But the communal meals, collaborative seating areas, and now, homegrown food, also serve another purpose, he said.
“Like in most homes, Ella’s kitchen and our backyard have always been an epicenter for employees,” he said. “It’s a big part of what makes uShip’s culture special.”
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