Drew Trick is a man passionate about tomatoes–very passionate. He loves fresh tomatoes so much that he has installed a rooftop urban greenhouse to grow his own tomatoes and serve them year round at his bar and restaurant, Lucky’s Taproom and Eatery.
The greenhouse project started in 2014, after Trick had successfully experimented with small-scale rooftop gardening. After nearly two years of construction, crews completed the greenhouse late this summer. Now, Trick is poised to start serving the first of his homegrown tomatoes within the next few weeks.
Yet, tomatoes aren’t the only things growing in the Lucky’s greenhouse. Trick uses twelve Tower Garden® structures to grow 336 plants, including tomatoes, eggplant, Swiss chard, spicy mixed greens, romaine lettuce, and red and green cabbage. The towers allow for vertical growth and a minimal footprint. Larger, sprawling plants like tomatoes are planted at the tower’s base, while the remaining pods are filled with lettuces and other greens. The hydroponic towers grow produce in small soil-less pods of rockwool, a man-made growth medium comprised of basalt rock and chalk. The rockwool holds the plants in place while the roots grow into the base of the tower, suspended in air. A submerged pump and layers of slotted flooring in the tower deliver water and nutrients, which come from an organic worm emulsion fertilizer, to the roots at regular intervals.
Like the setup it contains, the greenhouse structure itself is impressive. Trick worked with The Architectural Group (TAG), a Dayton-based firm, and Joe Ruzinsky, a local contractor known as the Old House Guy, to build out the roof in a way that blended seamlessly with the Oregon District’s historical standards but that also provided state-of-the-art technology to automate the greenhouse. The crew built up walls between the front and back offices, where empty roof space once stood, with windows recovered by Dayton Reclamation and Restoration, LLC. The new greenhouse roof was custom built by NEXUS Greenhouse Systems and fits snuggly across the top. Gazing up at the greenhouse from the parking lot, patrons can get a glimpse of the built-in weather station that serves as the greenhouse’s central nervous system.
The weather station tracks heat, humidity, and wind speed, and, with a built in radar system, can preemptively control the greenhouse to adjust for changing weather conditions. Too hot or too cold? The system adjusts the top vents to let air in or out, and kicks fans or the heater on. Too much direct sun or threat of frost? A shade extends the length of the greenhouse to cover the plants underneath. Storm approaching? The system battens down the hatches to protect the crops.
“It is the Cadillac,” Trick jokes when explaining about the roof. “Everything can be programmed, how much heat, how much humidity, how much wind the structure can take.” This automated system frees Trick from worrying too much about making the adjustments the plants need—Trick estimates that he only spends a couple of hours, three to four times a week in the greenhouse.
By Trick’s own admission, the greenhouse is a pet project for him. “I never thought I’d do this,” he notes. “But it actually gives me a lot of satisfaction to watch stuff grow.”
And grow it does. The greenhouse set-up allows for a staggering amount of produce in very little space. Trick’s earlier attempts at rooftop gardening used half of the towers and, at its peak, supplied about 100 lbs. of fresh tomatoes weekly. In his greenhouse set-up, Trick has doubled the number of towers and, because of the greenhouse climate control, can grow tomatoes year round. However, the greenhouse is unlikely to replace the need for additional produce supply. That was never the point. Trick hopes to supplement the purchased greens and veggies with those he grows, targeting the greenhouse crops for areas where their impact will be noticed the most. With a smile, he tells a story of the plants on the rooftop before the greenhouse was built: “One of the servers told my customer, ‘I’m sorry, we’re out of tomatoes, but let me go to the roof and grab one for you.’ They were like, what are they talking about? You see customers walk out, they’d look up, and the server would [hold up a tomato and] say, “Here you go.”
Lucky’s has already started rotating in the mixed greens and the lettuce into their specials and will be using the tomatoes to top sandwiches soon. The restaurant currently uses 150 to 200 lbs. of tomatoes a week, so when Trick’s plants start producing, he’s planning to rotate them in in stages. “The stages will be sandwiches, the pico, then you’re getting into the sauces,” Trick explains. “And then hopefully we’ll still have enough of our tomatoes to go in the sauce to actually get that flavor out of it.”
And that’s really the point of the whole endeavor—not to grow tomatoes more cheaply or even to recoup the costs of the greenhouse, but rather, to provide the best sandwiches and other menu items that he can. “I’m not going to tax on [the greenhouse]. It’s just trying to provide a better product,” Trick explains. “I want fresh tomatoes. For the customers, I want fresh tomatoes and I want good greens. You get three months of year where we get good tomatoes and everything else is just a red colored fruit with not much flavor. If my goal is to have fresh tomatoes throughout the year, we’ll have the best-dressed sandwiches. It makes a world of difference.”
Editors note: Lucky’s recently shared this picture of greens, used this weekend that were all grown in the rooftop greenhouse.