Acre in a box
Webinar recap and q&A with
While Andrew Abendshein has always been interested in health and sustainability, he never imagined himself becoming an urban farmer. However, Andrew saw his opportunity to bring fresh and local food production to his hometown of Houston, Texas when he discovered Freight Farms in December 2015. By early 2016, Acre in a Box was born.
Today, Andrew and his business partners are operating two Leafy Green Machines™ north of downtown Houston. They have several successful restaurant partnerships and a lot of recognition from their community. We sat down with Andrew to record an hour-long webinar about Acre in a Box (AIAB). In case you missed it, the entire interview is available here:
After the webinar, many of our listeners wanted more! We followed up with Andrew and asked him some of your additional questions. Here are his answers with a brief summary of the related topic.
LGM™ Discovery and Decision-Making Process
Andrew has a background in the energy industry which has taken him around the world. Upon settling back in Houston, Andrew heard about Freight Farms and was instantly intrigued. He saw this as an opportunity to bring something “new and creative” to Houston’s food scene.
As a businessman, Andrew set out to conduct serious competitive analysis to make sure Freight Farms had the best product around.
Freight Farms: How much competitive analysis did you do against other Freight-to-Table alternatives?
Andrew Abendshein: At the time, there weren’t too many companies providing container farms. We did visit one other company and it was obvious that the Leafy Green Machine was a superior product. A great way to compare products is to look at the crop yield per container and back into what it would cost per head of lettuce. The Leafy Green Machine had the superior yield per cost of lettuce. Additionally, I would try to visit a farm if possible because you can really get a feel for them in person.
Creating a Viable Business Plan
Once Andrew and his partners decided to get a Leafy Green Machine™, they focused on creating a viable business plan. Andrew knew the chef at his favorite local restaurant – Relish – and approached him with his business idea. The chef was very excited and let Andrew come to the restaurant’s kitchen. There, Andrew was able to discover what kind of produce Relish were using, what quantities they needed on a weekly basis, and what prices they were paying other suppliers. All of this informed his final business plan.
FF: Did you have a formal business plan before purchasing the LGM?
AA: Yes, we did. We were able to use information that Freight Farms provided us as the basis for our economics. We also discussed pricing with Relish in the beginning to get an idea of how much the going rate is for hydro lettuce. Every business plan will be a little different; It would benefit anyone going through the process of starting their own business to make a business plan of their own. You will want to know every detail in and out. By doing the work you will feel more confident in your model. There are many templates to use online that can help you get started.
Finding a Farm Site
Andrew’s two farms sit in an industrial lot by an out-of-use warehouse north of downtown Houston. When first looking for a location to put his farm, Andrew defined his “area of interest”. He needed something close enough to his home that he could check on the farm before work in the morning. He also made sure that there were enough opportunities for the company within a ten-mile radius. The decision to operate in this small area allowed Andrew to cut down on time and money spent on delivery, while also preserving Acre in a Box’s claim of being hyperlocal.
Overall, Andrew did not experience many difficulties finding a site. Houston’s zoning commission does not regulate hydroponics as strictly as other farming methods. Additionally, the LGM™ did not qualify as a building or permanent structure, removing many roadblocks. However, every area is different. Anyone considering becoming a Freight Farmer should speak with their local zoning board.
FF: Who and how did you approach about your parking lot location?
AA: I was able to find our site using information online about properties around our industrial area in Houston. A good place to look is retail space that might want something new to showcase to their retail centers. Industrial sights are a good place to start but make sure driving back and forth doesn’t eat into your time or margins.
Operating the LGM™ & Determining What to Grow
Andrew is fortunate to have a dedicated team helping him operate the two LGMs™, allowing Andrew to maintain a full-time day job. After an initial ramp-up period, the team currently splits approximately 25 hours of labor a week between three members.
When it comes to what AIAB chooses to grow, Andrew takes a lot of guidance from his regular restaurant customers. He frequently brings a growing guide to meetings and allows chefs to request greens they would not be able to get otherwise. Additionally, Andrew is always curious. He asks chefs questions and looks in their kitchens to see what kinds of greens are on the menu and if he can make a competitive offer.
FF: How often do you deliver to restaurants?
AA: We delivery almost every day. We only do daily deliveries for one restaurant and the others are twice to once a week. For any new customer, we won't deliver more than three times a week. A major perk for chefs is that a whole lettuce head keeps longer than traditional produce - this should be part of your sales pitch.
FF: What sort of packaging do you use when selling to restaurants?
AA: We use restaurant-grade bags and plastic containers for delivery. Remember: some restaurants have small storage space in their coolers which might be a constraint.
FF: Any tips or tricks to ensure the crop is "perfect"?
AA: This can be tricky when first getting started and I am always looking for more perfection. It takes time, love, and understanding of what the plants need to be happy. Managing the watering cycle is something you can fine-tune depending on what crop you're growing. Practice good spacing in the towers and make sure the seedlings are well taken care of before transplanting. Freight Farms has a lot of great information to help you get started and the rest comes with practice.
Plan(t)s for the Future
Andrew has an exciting future planned for AIAB. His latest goal is to a become a supplier for HEB, a large Texan grocery chain. Andrew is currently getting his GAP certification, which will allow him to start as a trial supplier at one location. If it is successful, AIAB will receive a standard order for all HEB stores.
Andrew’s ambition doesn’t end there. He envisions AIAB partnering with HEB to bring Leafy Green Machines™ to HEB parking lots. He believes that this will add value to HEB customers - who will be able to see where their greens come from - and to the HEB brand - which will be able to take part in the hyperlocal food movement.
Here at Freight Farms we’re excited for Andrew and Acre in a Box – we can’t wait to see where the future will take them!
If you'd like to learn more about how Freight Farms is helping farmers grow food in regions across the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Caribbean reach out to us here.