Ruta Smith

With the restaurant and hospitality industry under duress and thousands out of work, container farm company Vertical Roots stepped up to the plate, offering jobs to displaced employees.

Since launching in 2016, Vertical Roots has expanded from a single hydroponic garden container to a current operation of more than 130, each filled with leafy greens. For co-owners Andrew Hare and Matt Daniels, their mission is two-fold: delivering a local, pesticide-free product and developing community relationships to serve those in need.

“I have been in the restaurant industry for most of my adult life, including eight years right here in Charleston,” said Hare. “It really hits close to home for me, witnessing this incredible industry turned upside down so quickly by this pandemic.”

According to Hare, Vertical Roots hired about two dozen chefs, cooks, dishwashers, servers and managers since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In all, employees displaced by the outbreak made up about 25 percent of their 100-employee team split between their two locations in Charleston and Columbia when we spoke in April.

“We are helping these people get a paycheck and they are helping us get product out of the door,” said Hare. “They have been eager, fast learners, which has made the whole process seamless.”

Many of the new hires have worked with the non-GMO produce in the past. Vertical Roots supplies many local kitchens with their one- or two-day old living baby Romaine, arugula, bibb and butter lettuces.

After a food safety course, most new employees started in the “pack room,” where Hare said “all the harvested products flow to cool down and be processed for each customer, whether it’s making a spring mix of cut leaves or taking living heads of lettuce to clamshell or case.”

Many of Vertical Roots’ newcomers will return to their kitchens as restaurants reopen, but at least one downtown chef currently working with the company said some workers may continue to work at the container farm.

For Vertical Roots, the growing season never ends inside their compact, LED-lit shipping containers. The company currently supplies more than 400 stores, mostly in the Southeast. And the customer base is growing, Hare reports.

“We are 98 percent focused on retail right now,” said Hare, who points out that the closure of restaurants in the Charleston area led to an influx of large retail orders.

With a hand in every part of the supply chain, Hare knows exactly what’s going on with each crop at any given time, and the farm sites’ geographic positioning allows the greens to arrive at their final destination within 24 hours of harvesting. Large-scale commercial farms, on the other hand, must contend with corporate concentration, leading to less quality control in a practice where several uncertainties such as soil contamination and water runoff already exist.

According to Hare, 95 percent of the leafy greens in grocery stores come from two areas, Yuma, Arizona and Salinas, California. “These products can sometimes have three weeks of travel time,” Hare said. “With us, you are dealing with a young, vibrant product filled with calcium and potassium. I would definitely stress how important it is to eat something clean right now.”

Hare said he feels fortunate for the added business, and they were in need of some help prior to the arrival of their new crew. “What a mutually beneficial thing for us to be able to go out and hire some of our customers who are familiar with our products,” Hare said. Having people on staff who know how to use the product is enabling Vertical Roots to meet the growing demand for their seven lettuce varieties,” he added.

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