Photography by Julian Dodd
A pre-WWII air-raid shelter 120 ft below Clapham High Street with absolutely zero natural light, is not the most obvious place to be growing salad.
Yet that is exactly what the team at Growing Underground is doing, trays of trendy and pungent microherbs stacked four high on each side of the growing tunnel - pea shoots, garlic chives, purple radish, coriander, wasabi shoots - all photosynthesising like crazy thanks to the high-tech and slightly eerie pinkish LED lighting.
The tiny seedlings may not look like much but the flavours pack an impressive punch and are beloved of top chefs like Michel Roux Jr, who uses them at his Michelin-starred eatery Le Gavroche (in fact he likes the diminutive leaves so much he’s on the company board as a NED).
So Steven Dring and his partner – Bristol schoolfriend Richard Ballard – have proved that you can grow premium subterranean salad. But why do they want to – what’s the point?
‘It’s about sustainability and growing food closer to the place that it’s going to be consumed. People now are much more conscious of where food comes from,’ says Dring.
Inspired by the Vertical Farming movement and the challenges of feeding an increasingly urbanised population, they want to reduce food miles and carbon emissions associated with food production by growing more of it in the cities where it is eaten.
‘We were both into food and it just kind of coalesced. These days sustainable business just makes sense, it would be pretty strange to start one now that didn’t have sustainability built in.’
They started trading wholesale a couple of years ago, and have just signed their first milestone deal with a big retailer – Ocado. Dring admits that it’s still something of a niche business but the partners wanted to prove a point, and build a brand that stands for something they both believe in.
‘Without wanting to sound like too much of a cock, I suppose I just want to leave a bit of a dent in the world.’
The clever LED growing lights come from a Finnish supplier and, says Dring, are one of the secrets to the apparently crazy scheme’s success. ‘Five or ten years ago, we couldn’t have done it’ he says, explaining that conventional incandescent bulbs simply emit too much heat – and cost too much to run – to make them viable underground where ventilation is almost as tricky as the lack of daylight.
All electricity used is renewable, and the growing mats are made from low carbon-footprint recycled carpet. The kit is expensive to buy – the current fairly modestly sized growing room cost about £600k to fit out – but cheaper to run. Fortunately the tunnels require no additional heating or cooling because they are so deep underground that the temperature remains a steady 14 degrees centigrade year round, regardless of whether it’s a 30 degree scorcher or snowing up top.
‘We’ve raised £1.3m so far, from crowdfunding and also from a corporate investor.’ That corporate investor is giant farming co-operative G’s, one of the largest salad crop producers in Europe and a very handy name to have aboard.
‘They already have relationships with the big retailers like Ocado. That’s an enormous help, it’s got me into the buying offices of all the big retailers when on my own I’d still be talking to the receptionists.’
The regular rumble of tube trains some four storeys above reminds us that the facility is seriously deep – it was built as an air-raid shelter in the 1930s, the 70,000 sq ft of space accommodating up to 8,000 people far enough underground to be safe from even the largest bomb.
With an eye on the eventual coming of peace, the tunnels were cleverly designed so that after the war they could become part of a new express Northern Line. There’s even a blocked up staircase at one end leading to Clapham Common Station.
Sadly for today’s commuters, it never happened. The tunnels have been used since for document storage, although their most famous occupants were the pioneering Caribbean immigrants brought over onboard the Empire Windrush in the 1950s.
Such a substantial facility was crying out for a more innovative application, says Dring. Fortunately TfL were equally keen to find new long-term tenants and did all they could to help. Rent is around a bargain-basement £1 a square foot. Above ground that wouldn’t get you much in this exclusive zone 2 neighbourhood.
Of course there is no soil down here either, only concrete. Instead the tiny and strangely beautiful miniature plants are grown using hydroponics. Seeds are sown onto the growing mats and germinated in the dark before being put in trays on the illuminated growing racks where they are constantly drip-fed water laced with all the vital nutrients required. The water is collected, cleaned, and recirculated constantly.
It may sound like something the local gangsters use to grow wacky baccy but the technology is common in the horticulture business, with many tomatoes, lettuces and even some soft fruit grown this way.
It produces very controllable and consistent results says Dring, and it’s quick too: it takes between 20 days and a month to grow a crop from seeds to harvesting, which is done with infinite care by a skilled operative wielding a razor sharp two-foot-long kebab knife. It looks to all the world like he is giving the trays of herbs a very careful haircut.
The cut herbs are then packed and despatched as quickly as possible to customers ranging from those aforementioned posh restaurants to catering giant Compass. Ocado shoppers can choose 80g packs of Growing Underground salad mixes, in English, Italian, Indian, Asian and Japanese varieties, for £2.49 each.
‘The plan was always to start with the wholesale food service market’ says Dring. ‘There’s volume there and it’s a bit more forgiving, you can make mistakes and get the product right. With the amount of effort it takes to get into retail, you have to make your mistakes somewhere else.’
Dring – whose background is in logistics rather than horticulture – spent two years researching the market before deciding that microherbs were the thing to go for. Getting information was not easy, he says. ‘Market traders at New Covent Garden are tricky to get in with, it took me ages even to get them to talk to me. When you ask how much they are selling their first response is "Why do you want to know – are you from HMRC?" They thought I was the tax man’.
With the current set up they can do £60-70k turnover a month ‘Just out of that tiny space’, and if they can fit out the rest of the tunnels for germinating, growing and packing that could be four or five times more. ‘A £250k a month salad business, not too bad’ says Dring.
But getting there will require another £3m investment, which he is currently endeavouring to secure ‘People ask me "Are you fundraising at the moment?" Mate, I’m a start up, I’m always fundraising.’
That probably means taking VC money, with all the pressure to go hell for leather for growth that entails. ‘Will they give us a harder time than our current investors? Yes, there’s less emotional buy in and greater expectation of performance. But if we don’t perform we’ve failed anyway, so you just have to man up and realise that you have deliver against those expectations’
The hardest part of the whole thing so far? ‘Staying friends with Rich. You just have to remember that you were mates before you were business partners.
‘We do laugh our arses off on a regular basis but we also have lots of arguments. If you have taken £1.3m off people to start a business and you aren’t arguing about how to spend it for the best, you probably aren’t taking it seriously enough.’
The current plan is that Growing Underground herbs will be in all the major retailers by the Autumn, with break even predicted for early 2018 – although that may slip in favour of more growth, more quickly.
In five years he wants to have several more sites in the UK and at least one abroad. There are a surprising number of subterranean spaces going begging, it transpires. ‘Salt mines, caves, tunnels - we’ve been offered hectares and hectares of unused underground space all over the place’ he says.
For Dring – who has swapped a secure job in senior management at his old corporate employer for the do-everything-on-three-hours-sleep-a-night life of the entrepreneur - profitability can’t come soon enough.
‘Until we hit break even we are living on equity and there’s not too much to celebrate about that in my view.
I just want to get to the point where I can take a holiday and know that I can really switch off. The trouble is I’m not sure what that point is.’