hen do you know that your startup has reached a tipping point? When crowds start lining up at your front door, that’s a good sign.
At Brick Street Farms in St. Petersburg, Florida, an innovative concept in urban farming has taken the city by storm and — quite possibly — changed an industry.
Hydroponic farming in converted shipping containers is the basis of this entrepreneurial business launched by Shannon O’Malley and her husband Brad Doyle in 2016 in this Pinellas County community nestled between Tampa Bay and the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.
The difference between this urban farm and others is that all the food harvested from the containers is sold on site to local consumers. Farm to table, meet farm to mouth.
Madeline McNaughton, head of business development for Brick Street Farms, says the startup is so successful that the company is now looking at other locations “because we are expanding. The goal has always been, how do we do mass food production at the point of consumption? How can we grow and sell food in urban settings? That has never been accomplished in the world. We are the first ones to do it.”
Tonya Donati, founder of Mother Kombucha
In other words, this innovative business plies its trade with no trucks, no deliveries, and no logistics infrastructure. “The greenhouse models that produce the greens in mass production form still have to use a logistics network to get greens to the consumer,” says McNaughton. “We do direct-to-consumer sales at our locations. We have a retail storefront. At our current location in St. Pete, we grow 48 acres of farmland in our shipping containers, in a parking lot, right in the middle of a city of 268,000 people.”
There were skeptics at first, says McNaughton. “A lot of people said we were absolutely nuts. There are plenty of other hydroponic producers out there. But ours is a very different model.”
Why St. Pete?
“As a startup, we had to consider costs,” says McNaughton. “We’re in St. Pete because that’s where we live. Shannon and Brad both live here; and they were able to purchase land at a fantastic time. We started working with another container company. We bought three containers, but they did not meet the yield rates and ROI we needed. Shannon and Brad went and designed their own their own patent-pending containers.”
Obviously, they were farmers, right? Nope. “Shannon has a master’s degree in information systems. Brad was working as a business analyst at Duke Energy,” says McNaughton. “They were trying to solve a couple food issues. They wanted people to have access to food where it was grown. They wanted to eliminate food waste; and they wanted to eliminate mass water consumption in the field. They were determined to reach a zero-carbon model.”
Traditional agriculture requites 30,000 gallons of water per acre of land. “We use 1,000 gallons per one container a month,” says McNaughton. “It’s a staggering difference.”
Brick Street Farms acquires retired shipping containers from all over the world. “We prefab them and manufacture them here at our corporate headquarters in St. Pete. We literally make the farming containers here. We install our racking system, the brains, the electrical systems, the water ... all here.”
Currently, the firm has 16 of them sitting in a parking lot in St. Pete. Each is 45 feet long and 9 feet wide. Nothing goes to waste. The pods collect rainwater and recycle it. They use condensate from the HVAC unit. All of the collected water is cleaned through a reverse-osmosis process. A normal American shower takes about 17 gallons. Brick Street Farms use 15 gallons of water per day per container. “We will not be connected to sewer lines, and there will be no runoff,” McNaughton adds.
The city has been hugely supportive, she notes. “We have 27 full-time workers making $15 an hour, and the city loves us. Former Mayor Rick Kriseman was a huge backer. Mayor Jane Castor in Tampa supports us too. We recently started looking at sites in Tampa for expansion. In the next couple of months, we will have more information on future plans. We are in the middle of purchasing a large building where we will have 100 containers. Our new hub opens at 199 Second Avenue North this fall. And we have two new potential locations in process.”
In the meantime, she says, if you want the freshest lettuce, arugula, kale or Asian greens mix in town, grown without pesticides, and with a shelf life of three weeks, it’s best to line up at 2001 Second Avenue South in St. Pete when they open every morning.
A Mother’s Recipe
Brick Street Farms has company in the food and beverage startup sector in St. Pete. Case in point is Mother Kombucha, the brainchild of Tonya Donati. A fifth-generation Floridian, Donati got the idea for brewing her own kombucha while she was raising young kids and teaching her occupational therapy clients about wellness.
She spent six months writing a business plan. “My husband’s background was in advertising. He’s been my business partner from the start,” she notes. “We brought in a third business partner and got to work with no startup money and just a little bit of our own investment.”
Were there growing pains? Oh yes, she says.
“We had no real training in the consumer-packaged goods world. Our first two years were an innovation phase for flavors, brewing style, basics for scaling the business, and getting our first SBA loan,” says Donati. “We were then able to bottle. We went from selling to bars and restaurants and farmers’ markets to entering the CPG space and reaching a bigger audience at established retail outlets.”
Today, Mother Kombucha can be found at Publix and Whole Foods all over Florida. “We sell our core kombuchas and our sparkling water line,” says Donati. “St. Pete has been very supportive of our business. We built out our first space in 2016 and moved into new space in 2018.”
The firm occupies 16,000 sq. ft. in the Joe’s Creek area of Lealmen, about three blocks from where Tesla just announced it will place a new showroom and service center. “We’ve always had good support here,” Donati adds. “We started our business when there was a lot of change happening here. It’s still an exciting time for the city. St. Pete is a very friendly place to be. It’s small enough that you can get to what you need.”
She adds that “we will absolutely keep the business in Florida. We can grow production into new and different areas. We have 18 employees now plus contractors. As a base for our business, staying in St. Pete is where we want to be.”