A brand new indoor urban farm has opened its doors this week on Milwaukee’s east side.
Big City Greens, a company owned by Bryan De Stefanis and his fiancé Deborah Diaz, has taken up residence in a 2500 square foot space at 906 E. Hamilton St.
The facility, which will operate year round, will produce a wide variety of microgreens – tiny edible plants that pack both a nutritional and flavorful punch – for consumer and restaurant use.
De Stefanis, who grew up in the surrounding area, says he’s been growing vegetables for his entire life. He started out helping his grandfather in the garden, and moved on to start his own landscaping company.
"I just love it," he says. "It’s not work to me. And it came naturally."
De Stefanis, who recently moved back to the Milwaukee area after spending ten years operating an organic farm in the Napa Valley, purchased 14 acres of farmland in Wittenberg, WI, where he plans to continue farming during the warmer months.
"The property we purchased was perfect," he says. "We’ll use it to grow a variety of crops including tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, which we’ll bring to Big City Greens to sell during the summer months, as well as through a CSA program."
All of De Stefanis’ crops will be grown using organic methods, with land crops being watered with a two-acre spring-fed fish pond on the property, which will eliminate the need for commercial fertilizers.
Meanwhile, the facility on Hamilton, which is equipped with fans, grow-lights and skylights, will give him enough space to grow a wide variety of microgreens year-round. Future plans include setting up a vermicomposting system, which will eliminate virtually all waste, as well as recycling growing flats and plastic containers.
Currently, De Stefanis is producing over ten varieties of the greens, including broccoli, pea tendrils, wasabi, radish, mustard, popcorn, amaranth and sunflower shoots, along with both a mild and spicy microgreen mix. He’s also growing herbs like cilantro and basil, and says he’ll expand his offerings to reflect the needs and desires of his customers.
"There are literally hundreds of plants we can grow as microgreens," he notes. "So, we can do specialty items. And since most microgreens are ready to eat in seven to ten days, we can renew stock quickly and keep fresh batches on hand. "
In recent years, microgreens – which are not only visually appealing, but often pack a powerful flavor punch -- have gained popularity among area chefs, appearing not only as garnish on plates at fine-dining restaurants, but also as an addition to salads, sandwiches and a wide variety of other dishes.
And De Stafanis plans to capitalize on the trend. He has already signed contracts for his greens to be used at two of Potawatomi Hotel & Casino’s restaurants, including Locavore and Dream Dance Steak. He's had at least one order from Sanford, and he says he’ll be expanding to include other restaurants as the business grows.
Microgreens have also become popular for their nutritional value. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that leaves from twenty five different types of microgreens had four to six times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant.
"People are pretty excited already," he says of the business, which just opened its doors to the public for the first time on Tuesday, April 5. "People have been stopping by the shop here and there over the past few weeks, and they’re really interested in what we’re doing."
Containers of freshly harvested microgreens will sell for around $5 per container, with living flats available for $20 each. CSA subscriptions will be available online starting in the next few weeks at mybigcitygreens.com.
Big City Greens is open for business Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.