Local restaurant serves up authentic Vietnamese food with a side of ‘fogponic’ technology

The Plantaform "Rejuvenate" indoor gardening system is an exciting tool for restaurants, one local business owner says. Photo by Plantaform.

Ottawa is known for its great restaurant industry and an innovative tech community, but what happens when the two come together? A lot, apparently.

One local restaurant is shrinking its carbon footprint, improving food quality, cutting costs and satisfying customers thanks to a device that’s been described as “an espresso machine for plants.”

Using the device, ParLê by Viet Fresh, a Vietnamese eatery on Dalhousie Street in the ByWard Market, is solving the food industry’s woes, one plant pod at a time.

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David Wen is the founder and owner of ParLê as well as a realtor and the founder of Upside Realty. With a bachelor’s in civil engineering from the University of Ottawa and a naturally “analytical” spirit, Wen said he wanted to create a new, fresh and “aesthetic” Vietnamese experience with ParLê.

“We knew there was a market for a Vietnamese restaurant and bar in an aesthetic setting here in Ottawa,” Wen said.  “Most serve good food, but the decor looks kind of the same, but we wanted to do something different.

“We wanted to transport people back to Vietnam and be somewhere people can come in and chat,” Wen explained. “And we’re always looking for new ways to leverage tech to give us a competitive edge and to help the community and promote sustainability.”

Vietnamese restaurant
The Vietnamese restaurant hopes to replaces half of its herbs for the year with ones grown by the Plantaform device. Photo by David Wen.

The most recent “edge” is in the form of a device from Gatineau-based biotech firm Plantaform. Plantaform CEO Alberto Aguilar describes the gadget as a fancy espresso machine — only instead of lattes and cappuccinos, it brews mint and basil.

The indoor gardening technology is user-friendly and self-manages, Aguilar said, explaining that users add water and nutrients, insert the chosen plant pod and then “plants will grow.” Pods come with unique QR codes, which the device uses to customize water, light and nutrients to each plant’s needs.

The system uses a concept called “fogponics,” a technique pioneered by NASA that nourishes plants using nutrient-enriched water vapour rather than soil.

Unlike traditional hydroponics systems, Plantaform’s product – dubbed Rejuvenate – doesn’t submerge plant roots in water. Instead, it circulates a fine mist loaded with nutrients throughout an egg-shaped device roughly 60 cm high by 60 cm wide.

The round, futuristic pod-like device grows everything from kale, herbs and bok choy to its newest addition, cherry tomatoes. 

Unlike similar devices on the market, which grow about three or four plants at a time, the Plantaform unit hosts 15 pods and can be harvested every three weeks, Wen said, making it a great fit for restaurants like ParLê.

“Most (Plantaform) customers are homeowners,” said Aguilar. “But one of the reasons we think restaurants benefit is the amount of herbs they consume, but also with issues like inflation and high grocery bills, it’s more economical to grow herbs continuously and harvest every week.”

The organic, all-natural method attracts environmentally-conscious customers, Aguilar said, as well as the fact that the units are manufactured and designed in Gatineau. 

“It’s fresher and it’s a great way to showcase to customers the great experience,” Aguilar said. “But the most important part, which we pride ourselves on, is reducing the carbon footprint.”

At ParLê, the unique, eye-catching device has already made an impression on customers, Wen said, and the fresh, store-grown herbs have increased the quality of the Vietnameses dishes.

“It’s very aesthetic and it’s a talking piece, so people get curious and ask questions. They know it’s all in-store and they like that,” explained Wen. “Often that kind of thing is more for back-of-house, it’s not as aesthetic, but a pod like this, with its design, is an art piece.” 

The Vietnamese restaurant, which relies heavily on mint and basil for its menu, goes through about 100 lbs

Vietnamese restaurant
Owner David Wen says the Plantaform “Rejuvenate” unit is like an “art piece” that catches customers’ eye. Photo supplied.

of herbs each year, Wen said. But this year, with the help of Plantaform, Wen said he wants to grow half of that himself. 

At this time of year, Wen usually has to import herbs from warmer climates, compromising quality and freshness.

“Buying fresh herbs in Ottawa in January … it’s not easy. We always want the freshest herbs for our customers and, in January, the freshest herbs are if you can grow them yourself,” he said. “They’re very delicate, and we’ve been able to improve our quality, because the best quality is grown yourself.

“It’s saving us money not buying fresh herbs, but also reducing waste, reducing time to procure, and reduces our carbon footprint,” he continued. “A lot of herbs are shipped from Mexico, so it reduces our footprint and reduces our operation costs and emissions.”

ParLê uses the herbs mostly for garnishes, but Wen said he imagines the device would be a game-changer for fine dining establishments as well.

“We’re more family-friendly and casual, but for fine-dining where the volume is less but freshness and quality is more of a factor, I can see them doing even more with this platform than us.”

ParLê is still testing the device, Wen said, and has only had the unit for about a month. But he’s estimating it will save thousands of dollars each year and said the device — as well as the dishes using its biotech-grown herbs — will be the centre of attention at the restaurant’s grand re-opening in February.

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