As food shortages continue to cause chaos across the Australian hospitality industry, one restaurant owner has decided to take things into his own hands — literally.
Ian Chan, who owns and operates dining hotspot Oryza Malaysian in Hobart, is assembling large-scale greenhouses to grow the fruit, vegetables and herbs that feature so prominently in his funky Asian-fusion menu.
“There’s a lot that’s hard to source right now. We’ve had difficulties getting cucumbers, lemongrass and mesclun — which is like the mixed lettuce you used to see at supermarkets,” he explains.
“We’ve not been immune to the lettuce shortages either. Like KFC, we’ve substituted lettuce with cabbage or sauerkraut.”
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Food shortages are a combination of a few things: climate change, natural disasters including the February floods, pests, worker shortages from the pandemic, a fertiliser shortage, as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine causing global shocks in crude oil, canola and sunflower oil exports.
As a result, the cost of fresh produce like lettuce and tomatoes has more than doubled in recent months with some supermarkets charging as much as $12 for one head of iceberg.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, Australians have responded. Online marketplace eBay reports its lettuce seed sales are up a whopping 209%, while soil and gardening beds have risen 16%.
But becoming a green thumb wasn’t a simple undertaking, Chan admits, and a lot of planning and design has gone into the construction of Oryza’s greenhouses.
“There’s a lot involved. We’re working with various government bodies, builders and landscapers to get everything up to scratch and to ensure everything is most effective for us,” he told SmartCompany.
Aside from reducing his reliance on the besieged supply chain, Chain says it made sense from an environmental perspective too.
Less produce brought in from offsite means fewer emissions caused by transportation.
“And we’re taking that further by running these greenhouses completely off the grid,” he continued.
“We’re looking to have solar and hydro energy powering everything; potentially bitcoin miners to generate heat for the greenhouses; and we have 100 bamboo trees being planted to reduce the carbon emissions.”
In the meantime, he says, his customers have been receptive to the substitutions required to deliver on Oryza colourful menu’s offerings — a welcome relief that meant the cost of constantly reprinting menus was avoided.
“Where we can’t get cucumbers, we’re substituting pickled carrots and radish; where we can’t lettuce or mesclun, we’re subbing in cabbage,” he said.
“It’s not always a like-for-like swap, but these new flavours give our dishes a different dimension.
“Our customers seem to be loving it, though!”
One ingredient that has been hard to substitute is lemongrass, Chan admits.
“It’s such a key part of Malaysian cooking, so it’s definitely been the trickiest thing to lose,” he said.
“That’ll be an important product for us to grow ourselves going forward.”
It’s early days yet, but Chan says the grow-your-own approach means his business can be more independent and resilient to market conditions in future, and it also provides a revenue stream for the quieter months.
“While we hope that lockdowns and restrictions are behind us, the pandemic taught us the importance of not having all of your eggs in one basket from a revenue perspective,” he said.
“We definitely think that more restaurants will begin to look at growing their own produce for the same reasons.”