A conversation with Neon Greens owner Josh Smith

After a year of nonstop planning, planting and construction, Josh Smith welcomed his first guests into his Grove neighborhood restaurant, Neon Greens (4176 Manchester), on March 19th, an ambitious concept which connects people to their food through a farm that grows the greens for the restaurant’s salad offerings. But it wasn’t enough to grow the food on-site; Smith developed a transport device that plucks the greens from the harvest area and delivers them to the prep area for all to see. On the surface, it seems like a divergence from his career in show biz, but for Smith, it’s all storytelling.

You were working in New York City, in the film and television industry, before you founded Neon Greens. How does one get from there to here? It really was a [pandemic-related] spark. For the past 11 years, I’d worked as a set designer and art director in film and television, working on shows for Netflix, HBO, you name it. COVID-19 happened, and my boyfriend at the time and I were living in New York; when it got really bad, I reached out to my family, who have a tiny cottage in Connecticut, and asked if they minded if we went there to avoid COVID as much as possible. They said of course, so we went up there just as food scarcity and supply chain issues started to come to the forefront of everyone’s mind. Because of that, I started gardening and growing my own food and then got a tiny tabletop hydroponic kit off Amazon. I got so into it. A few months later, I ordered a bunch of industrial farming equipment from Iowa; I really went down the rabbit hole and created a 15-by-15-foot hydroponic test facility in my basement with 100 sites that could grow 100 plants. I grew everything I could get my hands on and experimented with different kinds of herbs. Having that test garden was an incredible gift during [the pandemic]. I learned so much, and it was incredibly rewarding to grow my own food and see the process at a scientific level. The food tasted so good [that] I started thinking to myself that if all vegetables tasted like this, everyone would be eating vegetables all the time.

The process of growing your own food really resonated with you. Why do you think that was so? There’s just this satisfaction you get from growing your own food. Anyone who has a farm, a raised bed in their backyard, or even a mint plant on their windowsill can feel it. Growing your own food is so rewarding, and the satisfaction that comes from it has to do with being part of your own food storytelling. It’s important at a basic human level. The other thing that’s fantastic is the growth aspect. Seeing something that is a seedling one day and four months later you and Mother Nature have shepherded it into something that is this beautiful, complete plant that will grow seeds and turn into another is enthralling.

How did that personal enthusiasm lead to wanting to share that with others as a restaurateur? In New York, people are inundated with salad chains—and their lettuce sucks. It doesn’t taste very good at all, and part of the issue is that it’s sourced from across the country. Not only is that super inefficient, but it also doesn’t taste good by the time it makes its way to your mouth, because it’s three weeks old. Once I started growing my own food, a light bulb went off. I started thinking of ways to make true farm-to-table food more accessible. It seems like the more you’re able to bring people into the process of what they’re consuming, and focus on the storytelling aspect of where their food comes from, you get this immense buy-in and can make them a part of the process, too.

Why was it important for you to begin this in St. Louis? I’m from St. Louis. I got to thinking that there are all of these salad chains that are interesting and different, but they establish themselves on the coasts and, then, after they get to a certain market value, they work their way here. To me, this idea of starting in St. Louis and hopefully expanding the concept beyond here seemed important. Also, there is something really important about returning to your roots—of really getting a sense of where you came from and using that as an important building block for the future.

Neon Greens is like nothing else in the restaurant industry. Can you describe what the experience is like for diners? Neon Greens is like if Willy Wonka had a salad factory. When you walk up, you see the restaurant storefront, and next door we have an outdoor seating area where you can see our harvest capsule. The restaurant and farm are connected. You can see the farm where people are planting seeds and transplanting baby lettuces to the walls. To solve the problem of how to get lettuce from the harvest capsule to the kitchen, we developed a conveyor system that connects the two spaces through a 6-by-6-foot opening in the restaurant wall. As guests are walking in line to order salad, [they see] clear totes of lettuce make their way from the farm into the kitchen. You have this visual communication of connecting the spaces through storytelling.

What are you growing on-site? We are starting out by growing lettuce and focusing on four different kinds. Two are technically Brassicas, which are in the same family as kale and mustard greens—lacinato kale and mizuna. We’re also growing two kinds of lettuce, sweet crisp and oak leaf lettuce. There is definitely an opportunity to grow more in the future, and we want to grow our growing spaces, too, but to start we wanted to dial in on the most important ingredient in a salad, which is lettuce. From there, the rest of the ingredients for our salads are sourced as locally as possible.

Can you tell us about the menu? We have nine signature salads, and every season we have three seasonal salads. Two of those are crafted by us, and one is in collaboration with a local restaurateur or purveyor. In addition to salads, we offer two soups; one is a seasonal rotating soup, and the other is our signature soup that has a coconut base and is a play on tom kha gai. It has a bunch of herbs, alliums, and a lot of scallions. It’s slightly tart and tangy, with spice from the herbs and ginger—and it’s green. We also have bread service: pão de queijo, which is a Brazilian bread made with tapioca flour. It’s something I started making for Thanksgiving 14 or 15 years ago as a special treat. We were looking at who we could buy wholesale bread from and decided that we could pop pão de queijo in the oven, cook it daily, and have something super fresh. Plus, it’s gluten-free.

Becoming a professional cook seems like quite a jump from your previous career. Actually, it isn’t that big of a change going from film and television to food. The details are different but, at the end of the day, it’s a piece of art and you’re communicating an idea to someone. The mediums are just different. The tools we have in food and beverage are everything we have in film and television, but you add senses to it: texture, taste, aroma. There isn’t this linear aspect of time, so it’s not a still-life painting; there’s a kinetic element to it. It’s  storytelling.

What is the story you want to tell at Neon Greens? It’s seeing the journey of your food from seed to plate. That has so much to do with the way our customers and employees and company all interact with each other. It’s all about telling the story of your food and about being able to be as radically transparent as we can be about everything we do. When we talk about what people care about in food, there is an immensely renewed desire from everyone to have a better idea of what they’re putting into their bodies. It’s not only about quality; there’s [also] a curiosity of where things come from, how it’s that way, and why it’s that way. In any way we can, we’re trying to find opportunities that allow our customers to engage more with the food they’re eating and want to give them opportunities to really get up close and personal with their food in a way that will be exciting.

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