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You’ve probably seen Lettuce Grow’s Farmstands – if not on Architectural Digest vis a vis Zooey Deschanel, then certainly splashed across your Instagram feed. The verdant and remarkably compact grow systems look like something out of an optimistic sci-fi film, promising a future where everyone has access to fresh, hyperlocal vegetables from their own homes and backyards. We caught up with Lettuce Grow’s founder, Jacob Pechenik, to learn more about how he grew (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) the brand, and how the world of vertical gardening in your own home is part of a larger sustainable food revolution.
It seems like your career has spanned several industries and interests, from tech to film. I’d love to start by learning more about your path to founding Lettuce Grow, and how your personal (and perhaps professional) background brought you there.
After graduating from MIT with a BS in Chemical Engineering, I founded and led an early web-based B2B supply chain platform, followed by the development and launch of a derivatives trading platform in 2004. In 2011, I had a bit of a career pivot in founding a film, finance and production company, focused on high-quality and impact-driven independent films.
My dedication to innovation and socially constructive disruption ultimately led to the co-founding in 2017 of The Farm Project, a public initiative to transform our food system, and subsequently Lettuce Grow, which has an altruistic initiative that aims to reconnect people with their food.
Lettuce Grow was also born out of my desire as a dad to provide better produce for my family. With my background in tech and production, I thought there must be a better way for people to have access to higher quality food – and then saw that one way to do so would be to help people grow their own food. Lettuce Grow has lofty goals to transform the way people eat, but it really began from a place of genuine concern and curiosity about how I could make a broken system better.
From mushroom grow kits to microgreen mini-farms, we’re increasingly equipped with tools to grow our own food at home. Why do you think consumers are suddenly interested in growing their own food?
For thousands of years we have been mostly growing our own foods, and only in the last 150 years or so has the consumer begun outsourcing the bulk of production. What is happening now is a gradual and partial return to the way it's always been. But the pandemic facilitated this shift by raising concern over the things that mattered most – the health of ourselves and our loved ones, and many turned to growing their own food a la the “victory gardens” of the past. We somehow went so far off course from our ancestors, that we are course correcting now, and reverting back to what was normal hundreds of years ago. It’s wild to think that growing our food seems “foreign” when historically it’s actually been common for us to do so.
I think consumers are getting wise to the fact that their produce from the grocery store isn’t the highest quality – whether that’s because it contains pesticides, or because its long journey to the store degraded its flavor and nutritional profile. When we put the power back in our own hands to grow our food, we can ensure we are getting the highest quality food as well as using the most direct “route” to it (our own backyards or apartments). I see the larger industry trend completely transforming how we eat – and at Lettuce Grow, we would love growing one’s own food to be as normal as owning a refrigerator.
Let’s get down to basics: how does Lettuce Grow work?
Some of the best and most unique aspects of the Lettuce Grow Farmstand are that it can be utilized inside or outside, is available in 5 different sizes, and takes up only 4 square feet of space (ideal for city dwellers with limited space)! If you have a nice sunny spot and an outlet you are good to grow outdoors, or with our Glow Rings, you can have a fully operational Farmstand inside.
Is a green thumb a necessary precursor to owning (and successfully using) Lettuce Grow?
The Farmstand requires only 5 minutes of maintenance a week, and you have all the guidance you need from our app and customer care team, making it an ideal way to grow, even for those without green thumbs. Because the Farmstand starts with seedlings instead of seeds, growers bypass the tricky aspects like germination and are set up for success in growing from day one. We’re successful when our growers are successful, so we are there with them throughout the entire process to ensure that happens. Our goal isn’t to sell – we want to rebuild the food system, and The Farmstand is an investment that gets consumers closer to the solution.
Something that’s always on my mind with sustainability is food waste. I know that a large part of Lettuce Grow’s mission is a dedication to sustainable food practices. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
In our current food system, about 50% of fruit and vegetables are wasted before anyone eats them. This is outrageous, and is largely due to the fact that the average piece of produce travels 1500 miles over 7-10 days post harvest. There is so much loss along the journey – not to mention in your fridge! We can eliminate all this waste if we simply rethink how we distribute perishable food.
There is a tangible way to create change when the consumer has the ability to grow their food and make an impact. As you become a small-scale farmer, you evolve into a more conscious consumer who has a profound impact in driving industry practices and products. We are an on-ramp to a more sustainable lifestyle at Lettuce Grow, starting at the individual level. By evolving the mindset of the consumer, and making them a catalyst for change, we create a broader sense of consciousness around helping our planet.
What is your own relationship with farming and growing your own food?
Before Lettuce Grow, I started a farm with two friends. I still remember when I pulled my first turnip out of the ground, brushed the dirt off and tasted it – and it was like magic. I wanted to give that feeling to everyone. The satisfaction that comes from growing or creating something is a missing feeling that we don’t realize is latent inside us until it becomes “real.” I created Lettuce Grow to help people access that feeling, regardless of whether they have a patch of dirt or a green thumb.
Can you speak to some of the challenges of building Lettuce Grow, both at the initial stages and in the present day? Has it been difficult to educate consumers on how to use and grow their own produce?
The Farmstand isn’t designed for gardeners or growers, but simply for people who eat food. There is no skill required. At Lettuce Grow, we know that we still have to get over the hurdle of people thinking they need a green thumb, and that’s why our customer care team is so important and so critical to our success.
If you’re reading this now beside your dead cacti or your yellowing monstera, this is a sign to overcome your fear. With a team of experts behind you sending seedlings, providing guidance and support, we want you to succeed and will give you the tools to do so. We know that people have an inherent fear of failure, especially when it comes to growing or tending to plants, but with Lettuce Grow’s support, the returns are amazing.
As a founder, how do you take care of yourself and prevent burnout? Any go-to self-care products or practices that are an essential part of your day or week?
Self care looks like a lot of different things for me, whether that’s walking on the beach, meditating in the sauna, or getting in the cold plunge. I also make an effort to be out in nature as much as possible. Each morning, the first thing I do is think about all the things for which I’m grateful, and this has allowed me to start my day with gratitude, instead of with a mental to-do list causing me stress.
Lastly: what’s your favorite seedling of the season? And your favorite meal you’ve made with produce from your own Lettuce Grow?
Some of my favorite seedlings are tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, arugula, and strawberries. The Farmstand is unique in that it provides seedlings you can’t always get at the grocery store as well, such as blue dazzling kale, which changes color from purple to blue based on climate conditions.
We have a lot of different options for recipes on the Lettuce Grow site that I love, like this adobo green beans and scarlet cherry tomatoes dish, and strawberries with coconut whipped cream and toppings.
Join us in a (more sustainable) future: try out a Farmstand from Lettuce Grow, and get a lot more intimate with your produce. Use code TQE10 for 10% off.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.