It's no secret that it's practically impossible to grow anything in Houston's scorching summers. Greens, especially fragile Bibb lettuce, is even more sensitive to our steamy climate. But this summer, Relish Restaurant & Bar is using intensely local greens to make its salads and top its burgers. And it's all thanks to Acre in a Box, a hydroponic farm in EaDo, right in the shadow of Downtown.
Acre in a Box is located inside a pair of 320-square foot shipping containers in the parking lot of a former drill bit manufacturer. Each container yields about what an acre and a half of land would. "We wanted to bring urban farming to the center of Houston," says founder and CEO Andrew Abendshein. He began the business in June 2016 with CFO Ana Buckman, CTO Drew Nunnally and Julia Shur. All but Buckman, a Russian ex-pat who teaches at Rice, are in the oil-and-gas business. None had any experience with farming, but as Abendshein puts it, "You just need critical thinking." And a willingness to start the day early. Most chefs want their deliveries by 7 a.m., he says. That allows him to get to his day job by 9 a.m.
Because the greens are grown hydroponically (in what's essentially a vertical shelving system), every aspect of their lives is controlled—from the humidifiers that keep the shipping containers cool and dry, to the filtered water that nourishes the plants. In the case of Relish's peach and ricotta salad, that results in uncommonly sweet, soft green oakleaf lettuce. It's a delightful medium for fresh peaches, homemade granola, spiced ricotta and prosciutto tossed in a peach-Champagne vinaigrette.
Abendshein has known Addie Teague since high school, so reaching out to her and her husband and chef-co-owner Dustin at Relish first was only natural. But Acre in a Box is now available at some of Houston's best restaurants. They grow mustard greens especially for Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors. Lettuces are also used in salads at Tiny Boxwoods and Tiny No. 5. Pax Americana and Presidio also source from Acre in a Box.
Though the farm's raison d'être is to supply restaurants, Buckman says that what catalyzed the group to start a farm was a desire to eat local at home. "We all like to eat healthy and go to market but it's so hard to get fresh greens in Houston," she says. For home cooks, Acre in a Box sells its wares every other weekend at the East End Farmers Market. "It's something we just do for fun, for the community," Abendshein says. And the community will soon be devoted to the company that grows fresh, local greens all year long.