Walking into Mission Chinese Food on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a mix of textures provide plenty to look at. The pink chairs and robin’s-egg blue tabletops contrast with the stark reds, whites, and blacks of the walls and wainscoting. A chandelier glitters above, sparkling against the stock of bottles behind the bar, itself electric with aqua-hued lights.
But the most alluring sight is an overhead box at the entrance that glows neon blue. Clear plastic bags tied at the top and stretched taut sit inside. Abstract and intricate forms protrude from them—some pink, others bright yellow, a third variety bluish in hue, they look as though they have been pulled from the ocean deep.
“A lot of people think it is art,” says Danny Bowien, the chef and owner of Mission Chinese Food. “It doesn’t look like anything you’d see in any other Chinese restaurant.” Though intentionally futuristic in design, the installation is more than aesthetic—it’s a miniature mushroom farm. A far cry from the tired and bruised portobello, cremini, and shitake that frequent grocery store shelves, the fungi here radiate life.
Andrew Carter and Adam DeMartino installed the miniature mushroom farm at Mission Chinese Food in late 2017. College roommates turned business partners, they propose a different approach to urban farming—rather than grow and distribute produce, they design, build, and install small-scale indoor farms outfitted to provide a rolling supply of fresh mushrooms (they do just sell mushrooms, too). Equal parts urban farm and tech startup, their company, Smallhold, deploys hardware and software not only to grow a bounty of fungi but also to carve out alternative routes from farm to table.
There are few signs of life surrounding the Smallhold office in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The landscape alternates between garages, warehouses, and empty lots. The bunker-like workshop and office space look out over a gravel courtyard decorated with shipping containers; cranes swing overhead, at work on a new development. But for Carter and DeMartino, this was the place to start a farm. Taking advantage of unused urban space—no matter the size—is integral to how Carter and DeMartino want to redesign the supply chain for cities. “If we can do it here,” Carter says, “we can do it anywhere.”
Carter dove headlong into urban mushroom farming two years ago. He wanted to use the skill set he had developed working in hydroponics systems design to develop a semiautomatic indoor mushroom farm. He wanted to explore how to use technology to enable more sustainable food production and bring agriculture to urban environments. He and DeMartino see Smallhold as part of a larger movement towards a more conscious way of eating.
After a year of doing research and development (it involved a lot of growing mushrooms in basements), Carter bought a shipping container to turn into a commercial facility. Just as he was building it out, DeMartino returned from a motorcycle trip across the country. The friends decided to go into business together, but not wanting to be constrained by the limitations of a single space like a rooftop, backyard, or greenhouse farm, they devised a network of miniature farms they can monitor from anywhere.
The mini-farms, also called “fruiting chambers” are largely automated. Sensors and cameras monitor temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, airflow, and light exposure. Carter and DeMartino can keep an eye on any unit from a laptop anywhere. Before the mushrooms are ready for restaurants, they spend between four and six weeks maturing in a warehouse. The mushrooms grow in a substrate made of recycled materials—mostly sawdust mixed with organic matter like wheat berries and coffee grounds.
Every week, Smallhold delivers fresh bags of mushrooms to the restaurants they work with. They mature for a few days, then Carter and DeMartino come by to harvest. Freshness matters a lot for mushrooms, confirms John Pecchia, PhD, a professor of mushroom science at Penn State University. They have a short shelf life; once they’re harvested, the quality depreciates rapidly. “We’re not fighting decomposition because [the mushroom] is still living the entire time. It’s as fresh as possible,” Carter says. Smallhold grows 10 varieties of mushrooms, many of which are unfamiliar to the U.S. market, where the white button still dominates. DeMartino likes the lion’s mane variety best—furry and oblong, it could be mistaken for an oversize hamster. Pink, yellow, and blue oyster mushrooms curl out of the bags, their delicate, bubbly forms like something from Dr. Seuss.
An ample supply of fresh, exotic mushrooms pushed Bowien to rethink his menu. He uses a portion of the weekly harvest to make mushroom jerky that tops fried rice. Before Mission Chinese Food started working with Smallhold, Bowien used beef—now the dish is vegan. “I like that the mini-farm grows mushrooms,” he says. “It feels very democratic.”
Back in Bushwick, chef Tara Norvell runs the food program at Honey’s, around the corner from the Smallhold offices. She has always sought out wild-foraged varieties of mushrooms, but Smallhold provides her with a predictable supply—indoor farming is more efficient, and consistent. She whips a variety of powdered mushrooms into chocolate cake, and makes tempura out of some lion’s mane. Battered and deep-fried, it tastes like chicken nuggets.
The technology remains unfamiliar. Like encountering virtual reality in the 1980s, chefs and consumers aren’t used to seeing automated, indoor forms of growing. But the potential is great. “Imagine that instead of the walk-in, it’s just your own mini-farm,” Novell says. “It’s just like the Jetsons. There is no limit; you can just keep growing in these little spaces.”