To the untrained eye, all lettuce looks like…well, lettuce. But for Bowery’s Agricultural Sciences Team, the journey from seed to shelf is a long one, full of hundreds of deliberate decisions, tweaks, and calculated experiments. To demonstrate this, let’s take a look at the seed selection process behind our newest addition: Crispy Leaf, a delightfully crunchy, refreshing, and invigorating green leaf lettuce.
First, Why Crispy Leaf?
When selecting a new variety, our agricultural scientists and product marketing teams sit down to answer a basic question: what do people want? When conceptualizing Crispy Leaf, we knew that customers love the crisp, cool texture of romaine, but also opt for frillier options when they want to amp up flavor. We set out to find a seed that could do both, providing the beloved qualities of a crunchy iceberg with more robust taste.
But, not all seeds are created equal. To find one that’s the perfect fit, our agricultural scientists Paul Gauthier, Ph.D. (Head of New Products and System Innovations) and Newton Kalengamaliro, Ph.D. (Head of Yield and Optimization) begin reaching out to companies and universities breeding new cultivars (which is the name for seeds in the agricultural science world). Kalengamaliro likens the process to car shopping. “Just like cars, you’re always looking at new models of lettuce,” he said.
Once he and Gauthier identify a few cultivars that seem like they could be the Tesla of lettuce, that’s when they start to test drive.
Putting Seeds to the (Taste) Test
Kalengamaliro and Gauthier start with many experimental grow cycles at Bowery’s R&D farm in Kearny, NJ. They’re looking for a few things from each cultivar: yield, appearance, and—most importantly—sensory attributes such as taste, texture, and aroma.
Interestingly, as Gauthier points out, seed programs dedicated to the modern farming space are in the early stages. “When I started to apply my fifteen years’ worth of greenhouse growing experience to modern farming four years ago, I was surprised that very few seed programs were oriented toward vertical farming and fully indoor growing,” he said.
Given the relative modernity of indoor farming, most new cultivars are designed for outdoor cultivation, where constant adaptation is required in order to account for the different variables that nature presents (i.e. pests or climate). Most of the time, outdoor growers are looking for plant varieties that are heartier and can withstand a range of weather conditions—the ability to survive often trumps flavor and texture.
Bowery’s indoor vertical farms offer a protected environment that removes the uncontrollable variables found in the field. Because of this, Julia Cohen, our Head of Product — alongside Kalengamaliro and Gauthier — gets to focus on the fun part of seed exploration: evaluating seeds for look, feel, and flavor, the characteristics we collectively call “sensory attributes.”
“We’re selecting for the best of what nature has to offer—that backyard fresh flavor and refreshing crunch, for example,” Cohen says. “Our Agricultural Sciences Team has incredible capacity to explore and evaluate a diverse range of seeds for every new product we launch, allowing us to bring the best of these genetics to the commercial market.”
The Perfect Match
In the case of Crispy Leaf, the agricultural science team evaluated multiple cultivars, testing them both in the farm and in recipes. They eliminated many that grew quickly but lacked flavor or exhibited model-like looks but tasted bland. Others lacked the signature crunch we were after.
“Some weeks, we would harvest and perform sensory analysis on multiple cultivars a week.” says Cohen. “In those weeks, I found myself eating leftover Crispy Leaf candidates for breakfast, lunch, and dinner… good news is that somehow I am still not sick of it yet!”
In fewer than five months, we found the perfect fit: a cultivar that consistently yielded bright green heads with frilly edges and a refreshing crunch that just begged to be the base of your next meal.
Step 3: Repeat
As Kalengamaliro mentioned, his team is always shopping around for the “new models” of lettuce. The seed exploration journey isn’t a finite cycle, it’s an area of continuous innovation for both new and existing products at Bowery.
We’ll continue to learn more about Crispy Leaf over time as it’s grown at various Bowery farms (read more about our BoweryOS here). However, one thing is constant: we’ll forever be laser-focused on bringing out the best expression of each and every seed we grow.
Want to try Crispy Leaf for yourself? Find it at your local retailer here. Below, check out a few of our favorite recipes.