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Omaha Magazine

Aspirations Gather in Omaha: New Eatery Scaling Hydroponic Growth

Aug 29, 2022 04:39PM ● By Julius Fredrick
Indoor greens growing at gather in omaha

Photo by Sarah Lemke

Four years ago, ensconced by firs, poplars, and pines, time passed easily for Graeme Swain and his long-time friend and colleague, Penny McBride. As dusk settled over Idaho’s vast woodlands, Swain stoked a campfire. Its glow signaled a break from daytime distractions, and their focus narrowed to a single, flickering point. As in ages past, people gathered around the light and spoke openly; thoughts and ideas forming on tongues of flame, popping and sizzling, before coiling off overhead.

However, well after the others dissipated, one concept in particular remained smoldering between them.

Small, but dense with possibility, Swain determined that night to nurture that concept—a choice, that years later, would take The Old Market’s already dynamic culinary scene in an unexpected direction: vertical.

“All we were doing was having a couple of beers around the campfire,” Swain, founder and co-owner of Gather Restaurant Group, recalled. “And the idea bloomed when talking to Penny, who’s into hydroponics,…and I thought, ‘why don’t we try this?’ ‘Let me try this,’ and we jumped off, you know? I always say an idea is only as good as its execution, and oh yeah, this one came to fruition.”

Having spent seven years fielding two successful farm-to-table eateries in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, including the debut Gather restaurant, Gather in Jackson, Graeme selected Omaha as the site of his grandest experiment yet. He pictured a hybridized, self-sufficient establishment—one part full-service restaurant, one part cutting-edge vertical farm—and found its bones in the historic 11th and Howard Streets building shared by M’s Pub. 

“When we took over, this building was completely barren. For five years, nothing,” Swain said. “Plus it got flooded after the fire, so we came in and thought, ‘well, let’s beautify this space,’ so we added every wall element other than the authentic brick, which we love, and we made this beautiful farm in the basement. We took advantage of an old building that had no life in it and we’ve, literally, put life into it.”

Though briefly stunned by pandemic whiplash, Swain’s patience and dedication was rewarded when Gather in Omaha, and the adjoining Gather Urban Farm, opened to the public on May 1, 2021. For those who’ve peered through the farm-facing window downstairs, it’s clear there’s nothing supercilious about Swain’s boast. Just as he’d said, life in this Old Market catacomb, had indeed, found a way.

Stepping over vine-thick electrical cords, past clusters of lumen-swarmed LEDs, and toward the steady hum of more than 60 hydroponic towers—each draped in vibrant greens, from fluttering parsley to sprigs of rosemary—the future appears startlingly, stunningly, present. A break in the techno-foliage reveals a young woman, shears in hand. 

“I actually did my internship here,” said farm manager Julie Helzer, a student of MCC’s Horticulture, Land Systems, and Management program. “When I first started going to school, I didn’t know they were going to have this in the basement, it’s been a great learning experience.”

“It’s this small, niche market in Omaha, and it’s kind of a dream job for me,” she said. “It all just kind of fell into place.”

Photo by Sarah Lemke

Helzer certainly has her work cut out for her. Like any fragile ecosystem, the Gather Urban Farm requires careful oversight and a steady flow of data, especially with yield percentages to consider. Foregoing ground water—or even soil for that matter—the farm’s state-of-the-art irrigation system is central to the environment; water funneled into reservoirs of spun rock, in preparation of a calibrated and precisely scheduled rain dance. 

“There’s 63 towers in here, each five feet tall, with 100 ports on each one,” Swain said. “The farm produces 1,000 ounces of produce a month, so probably right now, about two and a half turns per tower, watering every 45 minutes, and they [water] it for five minutes. We get our water through the City of Omaha, but it goes through reverse-osmosis, and so it neutralizes the pH from all three water sources…just pure water there, the minerals, the light, everything needed to grow life from seed to harvest.” 

“If we laid this farm out on a grid, it would cover acres and acres, and here we have 2,500 square feet of space—a small footprint,” he added.

While the advances of horizontal farming have been cultivated from the outset of the Neolithic Revolution (about 12,000 years), the technologies and techniques involved in vertical farming are rapidly evolving—demanding a strong focus on R&D to stay current. Luckily for Swain, a trusted business associate, confidante, and now acting COO of the Gather Restaurant Group, aims an inquiring eye toward internal breakthroughs and emerging industry trends.

Photo by Sarah Lemke

“I brought in one of colleagues that I worked with, Johnny Gonzalez, an extraordinary guy that I worked with in Costa Rica, and had been at the Pentagon for 10 years doing analytics,” Swain said. “He’s lent himself really well to just the analyzing of ‘how does this work?’ ‘How do we maximize our yields?’ ‘How do we have a better panel of produce?’ It’s extraordinary, the software that we built just for this. You know, you’re stepping out onto a ledge…it’s a lot of trial and error.”

Whatever mistakes have been made, tangible progress has Swain seeing green.

“We’ve even quantified the lettuce,” he continued, “and that lettuce serves 953 salads a month, right? It’s a huge bounty.”

Though it’s easy to fall spell to the novelty of Gather in Omaha’s roots, it’s above-ground where the miracles engineered below are given space to bloom. For those struggling to see the forest for the trees, it’s important to step back and appreciate the symbiosis at play between the farm, and Executive Chef Alex Becker’s domain, the restaurant. 

“We have a lot of interaction with the farm,” Becker said of himself and his kitchen staff, “I’m down there every day, talking to them about what we’ve got and like using, the quality of it, and was down there yesterday ordering some new seeds and some new stuff we want to try.” 

A steeled kitchen veteran and a proven leader, Becker is permitted a degree of freedom in Gather’s menu selections, though he typically employs a more democratic approach.

Photo by Sarah Lemke    

“So we’ll run a special and kind of tweak it here or there as we fit,” Becker explained, “and then if it does really well, we’ll do surveys with everybody that eats it and ask them what they liked about it? What they didn’t like? And, you know, we’ll take all that and kind of decide, is this menu ready?”

Beck’s leadership style is likely influenced by his humble industry beginnings.

“I’ve been in the industry, you know, since I was 16 or 17, started out bussing tables and stuff like that,” he recalled. “And then I started culinary school around 2011 at Metro here in town, and I took a job at 7M Grill as like, a prep cook, and that’s where I met Graeme, and I’ve worked my way up from there.”

Though 7M’s closing brought Becker’s time there to an end, he and Swain stayed in contact. This later proved a boon for both parties when Swain reached out in 2020 in need of a chef. Becker started at Gather in Jackson, before being asked to return to Omaha.

“He had told me ‘If you love Jackson Hole you can stay, but we’d love for you to come back to Omaha and open the restaurant there,’ so that’s what I chose to do,” Becker explained. “Love visiting Jackson Hole, but I wanted to come back home and open this.”

For Becker, one frequent question trumps even cross-state leaps and dinner-time rushes in terms of difficulty: “What should I order?”

“Oh man… I really dig our elk bolognese, it’s like a two-day sauce,” he confessed, “but I really enjoy our handmade pork buns as well, we take a lot of time making those, with a crispy natural pork belly, kimchi, and pickled Fresno peppers…whenever somebody comes in that I know, they ask me the same thing and I’m like, ‘this is good, this is good, and this is good,’ and that’s pretty rare to be able to say, especially with a menu diverse as ours. I take pride in that.”

Swain couldn’t agree more.

“Our food travels five feet, right? Five feet. [The produce] gets cut from there and then put on your plate,” he said. “Everything has something from the farm, in our food, in our cocktails, you’re getting 100% of the nutrients.”

“This arugula right here will blow your socks off." 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Sarah Lemke

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