Lisa Merkle on Box Greens, Sustainability, and the Future of Hydroponic Farming

On this episode of The Barron Report, host Paul Barron sits down with Lisa Merkle, the co-founder and executive director of Box Greens. A former yoga teacher and holistic health coach, Merkle co-founded Box Greens in 2018 with business partner Cheryl Arnold. Box Greens offers urban South Florida access to hydroponic box farms filled with fresh leafy greens, herbs, and microgreens. Barron and Merkle explore the science behind hydroponic farming, the growing national interest in plant-based eating, and current adoption of agriculture technology in Florida.

“A big part of our mission is using the business as a platform to talk about sustainable farming practices,” says Merkle. Restaurants and individual consumers who use local sources for ingredients can trust that there is minimal to “no impact on the environment from the transportation of the food.”

Box Greens transforms old shipping containers into indoor hydroponic farms. Racks, an irrigation system, an HVAC system, and lighting are fully built into each container. No dirt is used—the plants are not placed in any soil, and absorb all necessary minerals from the water. Box Greens uses floating rafts to allow for a constant flow of recirculated water as farmers monitor the minerals and pH levels.

On average, a functioning container can produce about 600 to 800 heads of lettuce per week all year round, and a 320 square foot hydroponic farm yields the same amount of produce as a traditional 1-2 acre farm.

For Merkle, education is key. “One of [Florida’s] biggest economic industries is agriculture,” notes Merkle, “and it’s behind when it comes to adopting technology.” She has found that many people do not realize the lettuce they consume for lunch was likely harvested weeks ago in California, and has changed hands many times. “And in the process,” she adds, “it’s lost its nutritional value to a pretty serious degree, and flavor.”

Plant-based diets, to Merkle, are the future. “Leafy greens have the highest concentration of vitamins and minerals,” says Merkle. “Food for a lot of people comes down to access—both in terms of physical accessibility and price point.” And hydroponic farming is “an incredible opportunity to turn people on to plant-based eating.”

Check out the podcast above to learn more about how Box Greens began, using hydroponic farming with vegetables and fruits, and possible partnerships with local restaurants and research universities. And if you would like to keep listening, check out The Barron Report podcast on iTunes Now!

Produced by:

Paul Barron

Paul Barron

Editor-in-Chief/Executive Producer


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Adrianne Calvo on the Culinary Scene and Launching New Restaurant Cracked

On this episode of The Barron Report, host Paul Barron chats with acclaimed celebrity chef, author, and restaurateur Adrianne Calvo. Calvo opened her first restaurant, Chef Adrianne’s Vineyard Restaurant and Wine Bar, in Miami in 2007, and is opening a fast casual restaurant, Cracked, this month. She has competed in Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay, had her dishes featured in Gourmet and Bon Appétit, and she regularly appears on NBC's 6 In the Mix every Thursday. Barron and Calvo discuss keeping things fresh, building a menu, and the unique struggles women face in the culinary industry.

For Calvo, real estate is always “second on the list to your product.” Having made her first restaurant—located in a strip mall—a success, and started Cracked as an artisan-driven chef sandwich food truck, she argues that location is not everything. Having a compelling brand and consistent flavor is key. “People will drive as long as it’s a good product.”

Calvo notes that her experience is uncommon to most female chefs because she owns her business. Many women struggle to rise and are quietly, but swiftly blacklisted from the industry if they have a family. Even those who do rise have to struggle with the gender pay gap and earn less than a man for the same work.

“It’s a delicate dance, the restaurant industry,” says Calvo. “I was researching how many executive chefs are women in hotels. There’s a handful in America. They can’t go up the ladder. Men are at the top of the chain.”

Calvo does not think the industry is without hope. “Roles are changing,” she notes. Men are beginning to share the load of taking care of a family. However, as Calvo adds, “It’s not going to start in the kitchens of hotels—it has to start in society as a whole.”

Check out the podcast above to learn more about the Cracked menu, crafting a “league of exceptional chefs,” and her advice for the next generation of chefs. And if you would like to keep listening, check out The Barron Report podcast on iTunes Now!

Research by:

Paul Barron

Paul Barron

Editor-in-Chief/Executive Producer


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The Restaurant Business Meltdown

Leaving or closing a business is challenging, and many operators wait long after their restaurant has stopped generating revenue to make a clear, though painful decision.

On this episode of The Barron Report, host Paul Barron sits down with author Kevin Alexander. Alexander is the recipient of the James Beard Award and the Mark of Excellence Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Just released last month, Alexander’s book Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End, discusses the culinary revolution that began in 2006. Barron and Alexander chat about the predicted recession and restaurant business meltdown coming for the industry.

“It’s the shark motto: move or die,” says Alexander. “I call this age the age of the operator. It’s the folks who are recognizing opportunities and are able to move quickly, do things efficiently, and have good management teams in place ready to jump on these opportunities that are succeeding.”

Companies that have a successful, air-tight concept can trust that that will be all the stronger for the expected recession. And, of course, money helps. “The operators that have enough capital [will] survive,” adds Alexander. For other restaurants, it is paramount that owners recognize when it is time to cut staff or close, and to quickly address a concept that is not working.

And in the move toward on-demand, customers are “caring less and less about where they get [their food] as long as it’s summer,” says Alexander. “It is really worrisome for independent restaurants who are trying to market themselves and stand out.”

However, as concerning as this trend can be for restaurant operators, he urges owners not to panic. “I don’t think it will all transfer over to this on-demand culture. If anything, you see the sustainability of places like movie theaters.” Much like watching a film, Alexander argues that most people will continue to seek the shared experience of dining regardless of what they can now have delivered to their front door.

Listen to the podcast to hear more about the problems of rent costs in major cities, the ever-changing Portland culinary scene, and the rise of ghost kitchens. And if you would like to keep listening, check out The Barron Report podcast on iTunes Now!

Produced by:

Paul Barron

Paul Barron

Editor-in-Chief/Executive Producer


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Catering The New Growth Model For Restaurants

In the United States alone, catering has grown into a $60 billion market—making demand generation essential to every restaurant and industry operator’s marketing strategy. Of that $60 billion, $24 billion is concentrated in business catering. And some brands are feeling the pressure to broaden their digital and marketing efforts to keep consumers coming to their door.

On this episode of The Barron Report, host Paul Barron chats with David Meiselman. Meiselman is the chief marketing officer for ezCater, the world’s largest online marketplace for business catering. The company works with over 62,000 restaurant and catering partner locations throughout the United States.

According to Meiselman, studies show “that 70 percent of catering buyers want delivery with their order, but only about 44 percent of catering orders are delivered.” With ezCater, he adds, “about 97 percent of the orders that come through our marketplace are delivered.”

For ezCater, the mission is simple: partner with dependable, high quality catering partners to help connect restaurants and operators with their current customers while also building that base. The company utilizes three online platforms—ezOrdering, ezManage, and ezDispatch—to accomplish this goal. Business class catering and delivery is provided via a network of local couriers and companies. Membership is free and there is no cost to be part of the marketplace itself; ezCater simply takes a small percentage of each order from the restaurant.

“The catering business is growing 50 percent faster than the overall restaurant business,” notes Meiselman. And ghost kitchens are part of that growth: restaurants are maintaining one flagship location while adding a number of ghost kitchens in surrounding areas to expand their reach. Such expansions ensure that customers receive a consistent delivery experience.

Listen to The Barron Report episode above to learn more about what makes the catering business unique and how the movement toward online ordering may help restaurants and operators focus on doing what they do best: making great food. And if you would like to keep listening, check out The Barron Report podcast on iTunes Now!

Produced by:

Paul Barron

Paul Barron

Editor-in-Chief/Executive Producer


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FAT Brands Embraces Ghost Kitchens

FAT Brands is adding ghost kitchens to its repertoire. The global franchising company has acquired a number of major restaurant brands, including Fatburger, Buffalo’s Express, and Yalla Mediterranean. And, in a unique spin on the ghost kitchen concept, some of those brands might be seeing their menu items available for delivery via other brick-and-mortar restaurants owned by the conglomerate.

Ghost kitchens represent a low risk delivery option for budding entrepreneurs and restaurants. For those looking to start a business in high-rent places like New York City, ghost kitchens save hundreds of thousands of dollars in square footage alone.

Updating and expanding a menu is also an easier and more lucrative process. Peter Schatzberg, the founder of virtual kitchen Green Summit, notes that for a traditional restaurant, it can cost over $800,000 to try a new menu. For Green Summit, if a menu fails to gain traction, the company only loses about $25,000.

According to Andy Wiederhorn, the president and CEO of FAT Brands, the company simply wants to do what is best for customers. “We want to take the opportunity to offer our brands everywhere we can,” says Wiederhorn. “We don’t necessarily have to have a brick-and-mortar location.”

Just last month, FAT Brands acquired fast casual chain Elevation Burger for $10 million. Elevation Burger currently maintains over 50 locations worldwide. Later this year, FAT Brands intends to offer a modified Elevation Burger menu out of select sister brand restaurants for delivery purposes only. According to Wiederhorn, the move would ideally provide a supplementary revenue source for franchise partners.

“It doesn't grow unit count, it grows total sales per franchisee,” adds Wiederhorn. “Our entire focus is on the success of our franchisees.”

FAT Brands has already implemented a similar co-branding strategy for its Fatburger and Buffalo’s Express brands. Over 100 of Fatburger and Buffalo’s Express restaurants are placed in the same location, uniting the two brands under one roof and driving up the average unit volume by 20 to 30 percent.

FAT Brands is also looking to experiment with adding a few plant-based and vegan Fatburger items to the Elevation Burger menu. Elevation Burger already prioritizes organic and sustainable meat, so FAT Brands is hoping current customers will be interested in trying plant-based options. And according to Wiederhorn, Tyson’s plant-based nuggets—courtesy of its Raised & Rooted brand—may also be on the menu.