Scott Ball / Rivard Report
A vision for a productive community of small-scale entrepreneurs making healthy food is taking root on San Antonio’s near Eastside.
Mitch Hagney started the indoor farm LocalSprout in 2013. Located just off I-35, the former printing plant warehouse has become home to the LocalSprout Food Hub, a community of food-producing vendors who share resources within the warehouse.
One of Hagney’s goals is to make fresh, sustainable food part of Eastside residents' diet. He also wanted to create a community of like-minded food producers who support each other in their pursuit of food sustainability.
Since 2015, the community of entrepreneurs at the Food Hub has grown to 12 vendors, many of whom participate in a weekly event, held Wednesdays from 3-7 p.m. The event is open to the public and hosted by food wholesaler Truckin' Tomato.
Hagney started his small hydroponic farm inside a freight container set up with strings of red and blue LED lights hung from the ceiling and a constant flow of water and nutrients feeding plants via PVC tubing. The container sits in the warehouse and grows an acre’s worth of crops in a tenth of the space.
Because his farm uses a closed system of recirculated water enriched with nutrients, it uses only a fraction of the water typically used in conventional farming. Sensors allow Hagney to set up automated systems that grow produce year round, such as Swiss chard, arugula, lettuce mixes, basil, and kale.
“We can grow indoors now, with better, cost-effective LED lighting,” Hagney said. “We deliver everything we grow within one hour of the time we harvest it.”
But Hagney had bigger goals for the Food Hub – to help food producers just starting out become sustainable.
“There are a number of businesses that knew they had a market but didn’t have sufficient volume to build out a big enough facility to support their food business,” he said. “Being under one roof helps vendors share costs for security, bathrooms, sinks, grease traps, electrical. The build-out costs have been less for each than if each had built out their own separate place.”
Sharing the overhead has enabled many of the small vendors to keep their business going. Several of them are in the process of building out their own commercial spaces and kitchens, such as RiceRise, JD's Chili Parlor, and Lil’ Red’s Boiled Peanuts.
One of the first vendors to join the Food Hub, Truckin' Tomato has grown into a thriving business.
“The Food Hub allowed us to grow as a food producer,” founder Shaun Lee said. “We started in a trailer, then outgrew the room we used as our second place. Here we’re aggregating produce from local farmers to sell.”
Truckin’ Tomato principally sells produce to local restaurants, with the Wednesday market serving as a means to bring chefs in to see and use local produce.
“Café Dijon’s chef does menu planning based on what seasonal produce is available here,” Lee said. “That’s what we hoped would happen, so we’re happy that local chefs are now starting to plan menus based on locally produced vegetables.”
Some new products and selling relationships have emerged from the community of vendors working collaboratively.
“We use produce from Truckin’ Tomato to make some of our products, and in turn they sell some of our mustards, sauces, jams, and jellies,” said Cheri White, owner of Deep River Specialty Foods. “We also buy from Texas Black Gold Garlic for our black gold garlic mustard. We make cookies and brownies for Healthy Vending to sell in local schools and use Pulp Coffee in our biscotti and brownies.”
JD's Chili Parlor uses Deep River’s rodeo whiskey barbecue sauce and produce from Truckin’ Tomato in its vegetarian chili. The list of new food products emerging from these new relationships is long and impressive.
“Madge’s Food Company got a wholesale account when we brought in FreshPoint to talk to another vendor,” Hagney said. “Every one of these businesses needs to have relationships with the other so it becomes an interdependent food ecosystem. Putting everyone in the same place makes it easier for opportunities to happen.”
The Food Hub Plans for Growth
In asking vendors at different farmers markets about their business challenges, Hagney found that almost all agreed there was no good place to build an affordable commercial kitchen. The Food Hub will soon offer kitchen space for food manufacturers to rent on an hourly basis. Half the money has already been raised to build the commissary kitchen for small food vendors.
“We came on board after looking all over the place for kitchen rentals,” said Mike McAndrew, owner of Lil’ Red’s Boiled Peanuts. “If it wasn’t for the Food Hub, we wouldn’t have our own company, because the costs for building your own commercial kitchen are so prohibitive.”
In addition to the 12 food vendors, the Food Hub has added Box Street Social, a food truck owned by Eddie Garcia.
“We’re looking for five more trucks to join us,” Hagney said. “Eddie [Garcia] will also use the new kitchen for his large catering jobs, and we can start thinking about hosting pop-up dinners in the future.”
There are plans to plant fruit trees and herbs on the property in addition to the crops already being grown in front. Waste is repurposed whenever possible, such as the chaff left over from coffee roasting that is added to the soil. Solar panels will be installed on roof within a month. Hagney also told the Rivard Report about plans to buy a whole animal smoker, which is larger than a Caja China roasting box typically used to roast pigs.
“We’ll have a huge amount of cold storage that can be rented out by the square foot for vendors and local ranchers, so a rancher can drop off huge portion of beef that customers can then pick up from the Food Hub,” Hagney said.
Food Sustainability Needs Community to Flourish
The supportive community at the Food Hub is a big draw for vendors.
“We’re interested in being part of a vibrant community focused on local sourcing for food,” JD's Chili Parlor co-founder John Anderson said. “We’re also partnering with a local pork rancher and longhorn beef rancher for our chili, because it’s important to use locally produced meats and the freshest ingredients possible in our chilis.”
Hagney said the Food Hub's focus is to build small businesses to boost the sustainability of local food producers.
“Farmers typically sell at farmers markets or to restaurants, so the Food Hub is intended to make it easier for them to sell directly to more consistent chefs and producers, providing a stable source of demand for these small-scale farmers and ranchers,” he added.
The work to create the larger community that is now the LocalSprout Food Hub has been nonstop.
“We’ve been continuously improving the building since summer 2015,” Hagney said. “When we first started, the windows were shattered, there was junk everywhere, it was a derelict building. We loved it back into existence.”
From a dilapidated warehouse filled with junk cars to a thriving community of small-scale entrepreneurs, the LocalSprout Food Hub has come a long way. With more vendors and features being added, it promises to make an even larger impact on local food sustainability over time.