Wednesday 19 June 2019

'It's the right thing to do' - Why the brothers behind millennial favourite Sprout & Co took over a 30-acre farm

Farm to fork is more than a cliché for Jack and Theo Kirwan. The brothers behind Sprout & Co recently took over a 30-acre farm where they're growing the produce for their five restaurants. Katy McGuinness pays them a visit

Grow your own: Jack and Theo Kirwan on their Kildare Farm
Grow your own: Jack and Theo Kirwan on their Kildare Farm
Farmer Trevor Harris and Jack Kirwan
Vibrant summer salads from Sprout

Jack and Theo Kirwan are the brothers behind Sprout, which they set up three and a half years ago. Their first branch on Dawson Street in Dublin, a favourite with Trinity students, closed earlier this year as the premises had been earmarked for re-development, but there are five other branches in Dublin and one in Meath, and plans to open another in the capital before the end of the year.

Sprout's offering is not what we traditionally think of as fast food, but with the capacity to serve five customers a minute with its signature salad bowls at its Baggot St premises, that's exactly what it is - even if what Jack Kirwan refers to as the company's 'Big Macs' are healthier options such as the Kale Caesar, Sataysfied Chicken Bowl and Paprika Chica ("basically, the ones with chicken", he says).

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Sprout has branded itself from the outset as somewhere to go for food that's healthy, seasonal and local, with a wry turn of copywriting gymnastics giving a 'where possible' get out when it comes to ingredients that millennials just can't do without, such as the avocados fundamental to its Super Guacabowle.

But now in a move that is right on the money when it comes to zeitgeist, though risky financially, Sprout has set up its own farm in Rathcoffey, Co Kildare and initiated a project that goes far beyond a tick box to grow all the leaves and a selection of other vegetables required by its restaurants.

Vibrant summer salads from Sprout
Vibrant summer salads from Sprout

The farm project came about through a connection of Jack's cousin, Simon Pratt of Avoca. Gar Whelan bought the old Farringdon's mill in Rathcoffey a couple of years back as a base for his classic car restoration business. With the mill came 30 acres of farm land for which Gar had no real use. He and Simon got to talking, and the idea of a Sprout farm became a reality.

"Last summer we dabbled in growing a few leaves on three acres," says Jack, who is dressed for farming in Hunter wellies and a Barbour jacket and drives a Defender, "but we were so excited to have the land that we just jumped straight in. Frankly it was a bit chaotic. The weather was so good and the leaves tasted amazing but we didn't have a proper system."

This year the brothers have joined forces with an experienced farmer, Trevor Harris, who has his own organic and biodynamic farm, Coilltroim in Donadea, near Naas, where he rears cattle (the beef goes to Ukiyo restaurant in Dublin city centre) and sheep and grows cereal crops including oats for Flahavans and biodynamic barley for Waterford distillery.

On a soft afternoon in early summer, Jack and Trevor survey the five acres that are currently in production, which include 7,000 onions planted by hand in early May. That was back-breaking work, and they have since invested in a transplanter machine that will plant seedling plugs of crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, celery, spring onions and red cabbage. ("I never realised how expensive farm machinery is," says Jack.)

The plan is for Sprout's menu to become hyper-seasonal, with the introduction of salad bowls that focus on whatever the farm produces lots of, whether that's broccoli, kale, beetroot or whatever. But the most immediate focus is on growing enough leaves to meet the requirements of the six Sprout branches.

"This year the growing is all about attention to detail," says Jack. "The farm is in conversion to organic and we are following organic principles. Although the vegetables don't yet qualify as organic, if you compare the taste of what we are growing here against, say, the rocket imported from Italy, there's simply no comparison. And the quality of what you get from suppliers is inconsistent. Here we pick at six in the morning, pack on the farm and the leaves are in the restaurant by 6.30am the next day - and in our customers' mouths by lunchtime. The leaves that are coming in from Italy are five or six days old by the time they reach the customer.

Farmer Trevor Harris and Jack Kirwan
Farmer Trevor Harris and Jack Kirwan

"We have invested in new software that predicts usage so we can pick according to what the software tells us we are going to need. In the peak of the season it'll be 1,000kg of leaves a week between lettuces, pak choi, mustard mix, tatsoi, and baby kale... we are now planting every second or third day, so that we have enough to cover two or three days' requirements, plus a little extra by way of contingency."

Is Jack worried that customers used to buying supermarket bags of leaves that have been washed in water chlorine disinfectant may be put off by the presence of the odd ladybird or creepy crawlie in their lunchtime salad?

"Our customers don't necessarily appreciate or understand that stuff grows in a muddy field so we are using our social media channels to connect them with the farm," says Jack. "It's more expensive to use leaves we've grown ourselves - probably twice the price of imports - but it's the right thing to do and the flavour is mega. The flavours remind me of the vegetables that I had in country hotels with their own walled gardens when I was growing up. I feel this is the right kind of adventure for us and it's a long play. I think that people will be willing to pay a little more if we are able to explain that we are growing for flavour and that's why it costs more."

In managing the growing for Sprout, Trevor follows the biodynamic planting calendar produced each year by Maria Thun, and keeps a copy of it in the pocket of his jacket at all times.

"There's a lot of whacky stuff written about biodynamic farming," he acknowledges, "although people are getting used to hearing it discussed in the context of wine-making. But at its essence it's about treating the farm as a dynamic organism, and working with the energies of the solar system. The calendar identifies 'leaf days' that are good for planting leaves and 'fruit days' that are good for planting fruit crops and so on, as well as 'black days' when you should definitely not plant. The amazing thing is that it really works.

"Enzo Nastati of the Eureka Institute in Italy did an experiment where he planted tomatoes on different days and the tomato planted on the 'black' day did not thrive at all. Our own farm in Donadea was getting tired and we can see the change in it since we started farming biodynamically - the soil has more heat and power. Here at Rathcoffey, we are working to get the nutrients right and ensure an active biome by the use of natural fertilisers and biodynamic principles."

On the Sprout farm, the fields are bordered with an insect and pollinator strip that gives friendly and predator insects somewhere to live in an organised way that promotes biodiversity.

"The strips are far enough away from the crops so that they are not a jumping-off point," explains Trevor. While Trevor looks after the growing, Jack is focused on the numbers. "Sprout's customers are 65pc female and predominantly in the 23-37 age group," he says.

"Interestingly, vegans do not make up a huge proportion of our customers, many of whom are still interested in a protein-based offering, so we are always trying to make that more interesting and exciting. We've introduced new dishes such as buffalo cauliflower with whipped feta and oregano that are going down well."

Jack adds: We still haven't broken the magical €10 barrier yet, but hopefully we are building a brand that people trust and many of our customers eat with us three or four days a week. The big challenge at the €8-10 price point is to use good quality produce.

"If you said to me three and a half years ago that we'd be employing a data analyst in the office, I'd have thought you were mad but I've become a bit obsessed with it… In 2017, 3pc of orders were on the phone and now it's 25pc, so if it continues this way it'll be 50pc or more in a couple of years.

"Our data predicts sales, and that feeds into specially commissioned software. We grow crops based on the predictions, which means that we will never be serving three-day-old leaves.

"It takes those ordering decisions out of chefs' hands. Sprout is purposely not chef-led. Instead, it is produce-led and we focus on flavour, so this is consistent with that approach. The software will also help us work with growers such as the Flynns in North County Dublin who grow great tomatoes for us.

"Investing in this software makes running the business far more efficient and if we were to expand into Cork or Britain or mainland Europe in the future, it will make that easier. We are taking a punt that in the future people will want more information on sourcing, will want to know more about where their food comes from, and that it will become more important to them to eat locally. The farm is an opportunity to tell the Sprout story. We hope that people will buy into it."

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