Farm in a Box Provides Fresh Bounty for Ritz-Carlton, Naples

NAPLES, FL—Growing your own food is en vogue and there are many benefits: You know where your ingredients came from; you can reduce the use of chemicals by going organic; and, for chefs, it can be a great selling point—they can tout their restaurants’ ingredients as fresh and locally sourced. Every great meal stars with a great garden. Can you dig it?

Without a large plot of land to farm, it can seem daunting to get started. For the Ritz-Carlton, Naples here, they’ve figured out how to efficiently grow a significant amount of produce with very little space and time commitment.

The hotel’s resident chef/farmer Chef George Fistrovich received a phone call about the CropBox, which is a vertical hydroponic farm retrofitted inside of a 320-sq.-ft. shipping container by Williamson Greenhouses out of Clinton, NC. Immediately, his interest was piqued and, upon more research, he learned that he’d have the space to grow what amounts to one acre of produce while only using eight gallons of water and 175kw per day. Essentially, he’d be saving water and energy, while quickly growing food for the hotel’s restaurants—it was a win-win situation.

“We spend, maybe on busy days, three or four hours in the Grow House. If you do a few things and monitor it, you’ll see herbs and lettuce grow overnight,” said Fistrovich, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Naples. “There was some back-and-forth negotiation. They charge me a monthly fee and we’ll see where it goes.”

The delivery of the CropBox created an element of surprise for employees at the hotel, as no one knew what to expect upon seeing the intricate weave of piping, pumps and water, noted Fistrovich. Getting started was simple: You buy the seeds, put them in the medium, then give them light and water.

“Tripp Williamson of Williamson Greenhouses dropped this large container of pumps and a computer system and I said, ‘What did I get myself into? It’s going to be an amazing amount of work.’ We started growing and understanding, and the difference is the technology. When they talk about water flow, conductivity and pH, it’s above my pay grade. I went to school to cook, but the more I learn, it’s extremely interesting,” said Fistrovich. “Depending on what you grow, in 42 days you have lettuce that’s vibrant, great tasting and hardy. It’s 80% organic. There are no pesticides, nothing harmful to the environment and no water or fertilizer waste. It’s contained and temperature-controlled for growing in the hottest months here. It’s a huge win.”

Fistrovich wants to stretch beyond what he’s learned and is taking hydroponic classes in the hopes of expanding his bounty to include tomatoes and strawberries. Among the crops growing in the hotel’s Grow House include Bibb and romaine lettuce, cilantro, arugula, spinach, cabbage and assorted micro-greens.

“It’s fun to do it the natural way. We’ll have a few bees in there and will put a hive inside. I have plans to work with a bee farmer and maybe get a bit of honey, too. I may even be able to do mini zucchinis,” he said. “How cool is it that we have food growing in our back loading bay? We’re going to focus on providing produce for our Grill Room. It will be a huge success for the promotion of our restaurant.”

More and more hotel brands are implementing sustainably grown food and locally inspired dishes to their offerings, but what makes the Ritz-Carlton, Naples stand out is the willingness of its staff to get their hands dirty by actively participating in the process of growing the food.

“We’re able to touch it. Those who have property gardens usually don’t get as hands-on as we do. It’s within our division, our chefs are involved and it’s a good teaching tool. There’s something to be said about seeding it, germinating, growing and harvesting it versus getting a basket full of vegetables. You learn to appreciate what you grow and what you use,” Fistrovich said. “It gets me excited. We look at Chef Jamie Oliver, his work with the Food Revolution campaign and what he’s doing to change the mindset of what nutrition is for children. We all go to the grocery store and see what’s there. It really starts with where it comes from and a personal involvement.”

—Corris Little