October 18, 2010

Fast-Food Hydroponics?

Two images of hydroponic food production in Subway restaurant, Tokyo

Small-scale hydroponic food production is receiving new publicity from a new Japanese Subway fast-food restaurant in the Marunouchi Building, across the street from the ever busy Tokyo Station. Opened over the summer, the sandwich shop grows some of their own greens in an enclosed hydroponic production unit, without use of agrochemicals or
inorganic solutions.  The organic lettuce is the freshest ingredient that the store can offer, giving new meaning to Subway's "Eat Fresh" motto.

Tokyo Subway restaurant with hydroponic food production

Currently, the hydroponics unit provides only 5% of the lettuce required for daily operations of the restaurant, and the cost of the operation is greater than trucking the lettuce in as normal. But to be fair, the application of new technologies always comes with a cost, and without innovative interventions such as this, that cost would never come down.  

More importantly, there is a high social value here - not only in terms of raising awareness overall, but very specifically in terms of connecting people to their food source in the largest metropolitan area in the entire world (39 million people). Small growing unit, large impact. So yes, this is more of an experiment than a new and more efficient urban food system, but without experimentation, we will never arrive at the new urban food system that many of our cities desperately need.  

There are those who belie the efforts of Subway, with some commenting that lettuce production is boring. However, if we take a look at the company, Subway is one of the fastest growing franchises in the world with over 33,000 restaurants in 92 countries, and it is the largest single-brand restaurant chain globally. (If you are now wondering, yes, Subway has more locations worldwide than McDonald's, which has an estimated 31,000 locations.)

Basically, subway likely uses more lettuce than any other single organization in the world. In terms of food production, lettuce has a very quick harvest cycle at approximately four weeks. When compared to the harvest cycles of tomatoes (60-100 days), onions (70-125 days), or peppers (65-95 days), lettuce is a perfect vegetable with which to experiment, especially in the setting of a public Subway restaurant.

Frankly, we're impressed that Subway even cares enough about this to try it.

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