Eats shoots and leaves: The cafe growing 100kg of greens each day

Sprout salad chain is feeding its 3,000 daily customers with organic leaves from its new farm


In an immaculately planted field in Co Kildare, I taste for the first time in ages a salad leaf plucked straight from the ground – and it is a game-changer. It is a tiny, vibrantly green tatsoi leaf, a member of the mustard family, that recalibrates my taste buds. It reminds me what a salad leaf should taste like, and makes me sad about the bag of supermarket leaves waiting for me for lunch.

There are 3½ acres of prime land laid out in neat drills, some overflowing with a carpet of leaves and some striped bare, having recently given up their yield. The organic produce being grown here could easily be destined for a Michelin-starred restaurant, but it is being grown for Sprout, the salad bar chain with six outlets in Dublin and one in Dunboyne.

Set up by brothers Jack and Theo Kirwan, cousins of Avoca founders Simon and Amanda Pratt, Sprout sells breakfasts, "signature" salads, customised "protein bowls" – and avocado toast, of course, to a customer base who want healthy food, fast.

Tatsoi, pak choi and mixed baby leaves ready to harvest in about 21 days in the summer months. Kale and spinach take up to six weeks

The seven stores serve lunch to an average of 3,000 people every day, and as of now, their salads and bowls, on a new seasonal menu launched this week, will contain these very delicious baby leaves. An incredible 100-120kg of the greens are picked, washed and delivered to the shops every day (harvest yields permitting).

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If you’ve every wondered what 100kg of salad leaves looks like – it is a mountain, a green mountain, that is picked within two hours, and refrigerated as soon as it leaves the ground. Deliveries are made to the shops within 24 hours.

Despite the settled appearance of the neatly serried rows of beds, Sprout Farm has only been in existence since this summer. It is a joint venture between the Kirwans' company, and Gar Whelan, who owns the land in Rathcoffey, Co Kildare. Whelan bought the property, which also includes the former Farringtons mill, to relocate his classic car restoration business from its former Dublin city centre location.

"I was looking for something interesting to do with the land," Whelan says, while the Sprout founders were looking for somewhere to grow fresh produce. "Gar had the land, we had the demand," says Jack Kirwan.

The two parties jointly own the venture. "Sprout put up the capital and Gar is overseeing the management on a day-to-day basis," Kirwan says. Horticultural adviser John Hogan is a consultant to the project, and farmer James Huddleston and his team work the land, under Whelan's direction.

The beds are planted in rotation, with faster-growing leaves such as tatsoi, pak choi and mixed baby leaves ready to harvest in about 21 days in the summer months, and kale and spinach taking up to six weeks. Next month, production will extend to an acre of greenhouse space nearby, to elongate the growing season.

Superior in taste

There is no doubt that these organically grown leaves are superior in taste, but are they more expensive? “At the moment we are probably paying up to 50 per cent more for the leaves to the farm,” Kirwan says. “Our logic is that the better we get at it and the bigger we get, we’re hoping that the price will come down. Our ambition is that the farm is able to stand on its own two feet.”

And the customers, do they notice the difference, to an extent that makes the mark-up worthwhile?

“In terms of the price point, we’re not really that worried because there is a long-term play in our minds. In terms of transparency, and going to the lengths of growing it, we feel that people will be willing to buy into the story, and willing to pay more if the flavour is this good.”

The total investment in Sprout Farm is running at “around €30,000 so far, which obviously is a sizeable amount, but we were going into it thinking it would be a lot more,” Kirwan says. “Quickly enough we’ll spend another €30,000,” Whelan adds.

And the payback? “I think it’s going to be a big point of difference for us,” Kirwan says. “When I worked as a chef , we’d get all this great produce on our work tables in the kitchen, and have no idea about where it came from. We brought our teams out here to see it and now, when they’re with customers or talking about it in the restaurants, you can see their passion for selling the thing.”

Sprout launched a new autumn menu this week, and the farm-fresh leaves appear in the beetroot and goat’s cheese salad, in a spicy tofu and ginger combination, and in the spicy Indian chicken salad, bringing a taste of rural Kildare to the streets of Dublin.