FoodChain Executive Director Becca Self inspects the catch from a fish tank that help supply the adjacent restaurant, Smithtown Seafood.
A Lexington nonprofit and a local restaurateur are teaming up to show the region that ecologic responsibility and economic viability are not mutually exclusive.
FoodChain, a nonprofit promoting sustainable indoor food production, is partnering with the recently opened Smithtown Seafood to supply the restaurant with fish and vegetables raised at a local facility using aquaponics, a food production system in which plants and aquatic animals are cultivated by forming a symbiotic relationship.
FoodChain Executive Director Becca Self said that if the organization proves successful as a food supplier to Smithtown, it will help convince others that locally sourced food can be economically sustainable in areas with little agricultural space.
“We will be able to judge our success by how many people try to mimic what we do,” Self said. “We needed someone to partner in order to show that the model works in a for-profit environment. Smithtown was a perfect fit.”
Perfect because Smithtown Seafood is owned by Ouita Michel, a well-known Kentucky chef and restaurant owner who stresses the importance of using local food sources and fresh ingredients.
“That is the way I run all of my restaurants,” said Michel, who also owns and operates Wallace Station, The Windy Corner Market and the Holly Hill Inn. “We are harvesting the [FoodChain] fish right next door, so in terms of freshness, you can’t do much better than that.”
Both FoodChain and Smithtown Seafood are located in space adjacent to West Sixth Brewing Co. tap room, which is located at 501 West Sixth St. Customers place their order at Smithtown’s counter for carryout or staff will deliver the food to them at seats located inside West Sixth Brewing.
Michel said she toyed with the idea of opening a brew pub in the past but wasn’t sure if she wanted that much responsibility at a single location, given her responsibilities at her other restaurants.
“I keep pretty busy, so one of the things I like about this arrangement is that I am just in charge of the food,” Michel said. “I had always wanted to open up a seafood restaurant, so this was ideal. Plus working with FoodChain to help promote a cause that is really important to me was very exciting.”
FoodChain currently provides four products to Smithtown: tilapia, lettuce, herbs and microgreens. Though these items represent a small fraction of what is available on Smithtown’s menu, Self said the operation is proving that alternative farming methods such as aquaponics are a viable supplement to traditional farming.
“This is really just an extension of the locally sourced food movement,” Self said. “If you live in a city and you want to produce local food, you have to be creative, but you can do it.”
In FoodChain’s aquaponic system, water containing waste excreted by the tilapia is broken down in tanks using a series of filters to produce nutrient-rich water. That water, in turn, is circulated into beds upon which the lettuce, herbs and microgreens float on Styrofoam-like material. As the nutrients are absorbed by the plants, the water is circulated back into the fish tanks and the process is repeated.
The plants in the FoodChain system are grown under induction lights mounted on pulleys that are constantly shifting in order to provide equal light to all the plants in the system. Self said the induction lights use about half the electricity of standard growing lights.
FoodChain currently uses six tanks to grow its supply of tilapia, which takes about six months to reach harvesting size. One tank is harvested each month on a rotating basis, and the fish are replaced with another 85 tilapia fingerlings, ensuring a regular supply of 150 to 180 pounds of tilapia per month.
A look at one of the battered fish combos available at Smithtown Seafood.
FoodChain originally put about 65 fish in each tank, but increased the number to 85 at the request of Smithtown employees, who were having trouble plating the fish because of its size and the fact that Smithtown serves all of its tilapia whole.
“The fish was too big for the plate,” Self said. “Most people have trouble imagining that because most of us are used to eating fillets, but that’s not the way Smithtown does it.”
Michel said thus far the monthly supply of tilapia from FoodChain has sold out very quickly — usually in a day or two. Each of the tilapia feeds about two people and costs $20. Approximately $8 from the sale of each tilapia goes to support FoodChain.
“We’re really trying to get [FoodChain’s] production up because there is a huge demand,” she said. “That’s just going to take some time.”
Self said while it takes about six months to cultivate tilapia in the aquaponic system, the lettuce takes about six weeks from seed to harvest. Some of the microgreens and herbs can grow in about 10-15 days.
“We all need some type of protein in our diet,” Self said. “But our system illustrates the point that if you are talking about sustainability, we probably need to start eating more food produced from plant sources.”
One of the tilapia dishes served at Smithtown is Tilapia Singapore, a whole tilapia seasoned with Szechuan salt and served with sweet and spicy pickled vegetables. Lettuce leaves, herbs and microgreens included with the dish all come from FoodChain.
Smithtown’s offerings thus far have included cod, flounder, and freshwater catfish. Shrimp and oysters are also available. Non-seafood items include a hot dog produced by Marksbury Farm in Lancaster, Ky., along with beef burgers and salads.
Revel said the menu at Smithtown will change depending on the season and what types of fish, meat and vegetables are available from local and sustainable sources, including FoodChain.
“Because of the way we choose to operate, we may not always have the particular fish you want,” Michel said. “But due to the fact that we only use what is available, we have a lot of variety in our menu.”
Some additional offerings from FoodChain may be on the horizon. Self said in the coming months the organization is planning to utilize the basement to grow mushrooms and available rooftop space to grow vegetables.
“The goal is to make use of all the space that we have,” Self said. “We’re hoping that Smithtown has a lot of success and that it draws a lot of attention to what we are doing.”
Because the primary component of FoodChain’s mission is education, Self said the organization is offering tours of the facility to schoolchildren and guidance to those interested in utilizing aquaponics for their own endeavors. She expects the educational component to pick up after their relationship with Smithtown proves to be lasting and profitable for the restaurant.
“Since we are a nonprofit, we can take more risks and experiment with a little trial and error,” Self said. “That way we can help people in the future to avoid any of the problems and mistakes that we encounter.”