In March, after two years of supplying local restaurants with microgreens through Planted Detroit, Megan Burritt could see the writing on the wall. Once a major supplier of local, farm-to-table restaurants, Planted’s client list was dwindling due to COVID-19 and the elimination of in-person service. Those establishments that remained open had altered their offerings rendering Planted’s produce obsolete on their menus, while places like Magnet were closed for good. As a result, Planted’s wholesale demand for baby greens and micro basil, grown in an indoor vertical hydroponic facility in Islandview, fell to almost zero. As managing partner, Burritt knew she had to completely rethink her business plan if she wanted to save jobs and sustain through the pandemic.
“People in Detroit have always tried to grow for their own [food], and we tried to bring the same energy to the unusual circumstances of COVID-19,” Burritt says. “We don’t want to take away this really important food source for Detroiters.”
The upheaval within the restaurant industry forced Burritt’s team to pivot from wholesale restaurant distribution to retail. Planted’s team was able to come together and continue to produce food at its full capacity, as well as provide employment to those that need it, by transitioning to direct-to-consumer sales. By preparing meal kits and making them available through its website, Planted has been able to create a new customer base and maintain a profitable business by connecting with private chefs and meal prep caterers like Thyme & Honey.
Farming is not a new concept, and it is especially not new to the city of Detroit, but Planted is building something that has never been done quite this way before with a Controlled Environment Agriculture. This form of agriculture utilizes technology to control the growing environment theoretically creating a closed, sustainable food system year-round.
Workers scrub into the vertical farm, ensuring the cleanest environment possible for the product and the staff members. Growers wear protective gear at all times within the facility. It is a completely controlled space that filters both air and water to reduce contamination by human pathogens or otherwise. Here, the team harvests everything they grow, and is broken down to three broad categories: baby greens, herbs, and microgreens.
Partnering with Eastern Market, and other distributors including locally owned business Drench, for salad dressing, Planted’s salad kits have been a linear success since early summer — on par with the revenue Planted was bringing in pre-pandemic. “We are on target with our sales goals for this year,” she adds. That’s a particularly impressive accomplishment given the fact that Planted is operating in a significantly smaller space due to construction at their site in the midst of an economic downturn. Still, selling prepped meals to consumers is a world away from selling to a chef in a restaurant. When you are used to selling a specialty product wholesale to commercial clients, “the price point of everything shifts to a completely different scale” Burritt says.
Figuring out how to provide this specialized style of farm training to Detroiters is also important to Burritt. From at-home hydroponic farming and soil growing, some incoming employees already have some knowledge that can be beneficial to the process. However, a green thumb is not required to join the team at Planted. They take pride educating prospective team members, even if farming is new to them. “One of the things we have heard from our community is that a lot of Detroiters care about growing our own food, and hydroponics is a great way to grow year-round — whether you do it at scale, as a business as Planted does, or at home in your basement for fun and family,” she says.
Going forward, Planted is hoping to grow its team. Construction is almost complete on two large grow rooms at the 22,000-square-foot facility, which will allow Planted to increase productivity and welcome back wholesale customers while continuing to provide a sustainable, direct-to-consumer meal kit service. Currently, Planted has 11 employees, but the farm is looking to add between five and 12 more once construction is complete on their new farm. “One of our core tenets at Planted Detroit is community, and we are very intentional about reaching out to our Islandview neighborhood community in different ways,” Burritt says. “We know that this type of agriculture is more than just a job, it’s a skill set you can bring home, carry into other jobs, and hopefully make a career out of it.”
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