Lettuce Grow founder Jacob Pechenik built a multimillion-dollar business out of sculptural hydroponic towers that serve as microfarms.
Jacob Pechenik, 50, had founded and exited three companies by the time his then-partner, actor Zooey Deschanel, was pregnant with their first child. As many do in such circumstances, the family adopted healthy eating habits — only to be astounded by the cost of organic produce, and disappointed by the quality. Pechenik, seeing an opportunity, decided to launch an aquaponic organic farm. It was inspiring, grounding, and — ultimately — unsustainable. Grocery store margins were just too slim. He chalked it up to our inefficient system of bringing food to market, and in 2017 he decided to bring farming back to the American backyard. Pechenik envisioned a sculptural hydroponic tower wired with grow lights that would cycle nutrients and water through the plants’ roots — a foolproof micro-farm. His next challenge: getting folks to believe they are capable of not killing their basil plants. –As Told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
Farming isn’t the challenge, it’s getting the food to the people. You take this perfect head of organic lettuce, put it into a clamshell, and then put it into a corrugated box to go to a distribution center. And it sits there. The average piece of produce is seven to 10 days old by the time it gets to the grocery store; half has gone bad before it is sold and the rest has lost half its nutritional value. Learning that was my personal wake-up call.
So how do we deliver more nutrition more efficiently? Our idea was to grow seedlings close to where people live and deliver them by mail. Then they’d put the seedlings into our unit, and within weeks, you have a tasty, fully organic product.
The challenge was the hydroponic structure. I wanted it to be vertical, to save space in urban areas, and indoor-outdoor. I hired a firm to make it, and it turned out to be the single ugliest product you’ve ever seen. This is my first consumer business, and it’s harder than B2B in a lot of ways. There are metrics — and then there’s magic. The magic you need doesn’t necessarily pop up in a spreadsheet. It comes from your gut. And I knew no one was going to buy this unless it was beautiful. A friend recommended an industrial designer, Pip Tompkin, and hiring him was the smartest choice I’ve ever made. He designed the Lettuce Grow units, which are lightweight and modular. It took about a year and a half, and we already had 20 employees — that was a tough time.
Lettuce Grow units designed by Pip Tompkin.
I had thought funding the company would be easy, because distributing organic, healthy food to Americans is such a big problem; the numbers made sense; and I’d started and exited successful companies. But investors said, “What’s wrong with Whole Foods?” So I ended up self-funding, with some friends and family, and we turned the old farm into our first seedling center.
Almost everything we make is made in the United States — I wanted to support local manufacturing, though it was a huge challenge to find a manufacturer that would use as much recycled plastic as possible. It’s just very costly; more expensive than the virgin stuff. But that really helped us later, because the pandemic’s major supply chain issues didn’t harm us. Even at the height of shipping troubles, our customers could get their farmstand within a week.
When we launched in 2019, and finally had the units available, we had a very low budget for performance marketing. But Zooey and I did some press together. Customers started posting on social media, too. That and word of mouth were really powerful. All of a sudden, sales really started going up. By February 2020, I think people had started to panic about what was going to happen during the pandemic, and suddenly every day was a record day.
Now we have six seedling centers across North America and have sold more than four million seedlings. You can grow $1,500 worth of produce in a year. Convincing people that they won’t kill the plants is our challenge, but once someone hears that their friend’s kid picked their own dinner and ate vegetables for the first time, they believe.