The stories you don’t know about some of the world’s best and little-known brands

“From a consumer point of view, everybody buys bag salad because it’s healthy and convenient,” says Kate Hofman, co-founder of pioneering UK vertical farm GrowUp. She then turns the tables and asks how I feel about the experience. It is, I respond, usually a wilting, unsatisfying one.

Hofman is expecting my answer. “It doesn’t matter where you shop or what bag of salad you buy, it’s how everyone feels and hates the fact that it doesn’t stay fresh for long enough,” she says.

“We saw this unusual commercial opportunity where we could produce a product that really solved a consumer problem.”

Last year, GrowUp’s Unbeleafable brand became the first-ever salad range grown by a vertical farm in the UK stocked in Tesco. Given that the UK imports around 90% of its salad through winter, this was a breakthrough moment for the homegrown, year-round product with longer-lasting leaves.

“The powerful thing for me is developing a brand which people are engaging with and starting to trust,” says Hofman, who is also chief brand officer. “There aren’t a lot of brands in produce as historically it’s been impossible to guarantee the quality and reliability of the product. But we can deliver utility and consistency year round.”

GrowUp Farms opened its Kent site in Pepperness in late 2022, with £100 million equity-backed funding. By using vertical farming techniques, the vast hanger-style warehouse grows fresh, pesticide-free salad indoors, employing hydroponics and LED lighting to optimise growth conditions while minimising water usage and environmental impact.

GrowUp Farms is a pioneer in UK vertical farming and has spent over a decade growing restaurant-quality salad.
GrowUp Farms is a pioneer in UK vertical farming and has spent over a decade growing restaurant-quality salad.

Having worked as a management consultant at IBM, Hofman took a sabbatical to do a Masters in environmental technology in business at Imperial College. She calls herself “an accidental entrepreneur” after seeing potential in what was called urban farming back in 2012.

As her interest heightened, she met her now co-founder, engineer Tom Webster, through a mutual friend.

“We were really interested in making sustainable food more affordable for more people,” she says. “And growing it in a way that recruited the environmental impact.”

The duo started with their first aquaponics venture (The GrowUp Box) courtesy of a shipping container with a greenhouse on top, which in a car park by London’s Borough Market.

Both living close by, they would cycle over at 5am and worked with restaurants and traders at the market.

“People loved the story and the quality. It convinced us that there was something there to scale to the production and products which would have a meaningful impact.”

Their next farm (Unit 84) saw them take on an existing warehouse and install a growing system. Upgrading from bikes to an electric van for deliveries, they sold into New Covent Garden and retailers, including Whole Foods, across London.

“Even back then, in 2014, we recognised we had this fantastic way of growing a delicious product and if we were to bring growing indoors into a controlled environment, we needed energy for it,” she recalls.

With carbon footprints and net zero yet to weave its way into the business psyche, GrowUp ran a lifecycle analysis to understand the impact.

Hofman says: “You have to run a vertical farm on renewable energy otherwise the carbon footprint of what you are doing is higher than the conventional supply chain. We had to think ahead and ways of solving the energy part of food production.”

GrowUp Farms was founded by Kate Hofman and Tom Webster in 2013 - with their container box near Borough Market.
GrowUp Farms was founded by Kate Hofman and Tom Webster in 2013 – with their container box near Borough Market.

The founders worked with a partner who had built three renewable power stations in the UK — including in Speyside for whisky manufacturing — to provide heat and energy to local industry. Businesses were directly plugged in and benefiting from the renewable heat and with GrowUp looking for infrastructure they could build a farm next to, they landed upon a site in Kent.

“We realised that energy and food production are two sides of the same coin,” adds Hofman.

The two businesses merged, with Marcus Whately taking over as GrowUp Farms’ CEO. The first seeds were planted in Sandwich in November 2022 — a decade on from their container box idea — while their first products hit supermarket shelves last February.

“What you are doing is creating the perfect growing conditions for your farm 365 days a year,”

says Hofman, with conditions and temperature mimicking Italy and Spain where the UK imports its salads from.

“For plants to be healthy and happy, it needs light, water but also the right temperature and airflow. For environmentally controlled aspects of the growing we use renewable heat which makes it a much more cost effective way of running a farm.”

GrowUp Farms newest vertical farm is near Sandwich in Kent. It combines innovative farming technology with renewable energy.
GrowUp Farms newest vertical farm is near Sandwich in Kent. It combines innovative farming technology with renewable energy.

In 2021, electricity would have accounted for around 25% of a vertical farm’s operating costs, but that has now risen up to 50%. GrowUp, says Hofman, use 40% less electricity and save around £7.3m from being on site in Sandwich.

“That’s a significant saving for any business but there are lots of challenges for vertical farms with rising energy prices,” she adds.

GrowUp uses up to 94% less water than traditional growing, while the company hopes to further break down the supply chain barrier with its fresh produce over current import challenges. Hofman says: “It’s how we build more resilience into the UK’s food system.”

The farm’s success last year led to Hofman being invited to the Downing Street Farm to Food summit as an industry expert, alongside traditional farmers. The summit was held in response to a 40-year low in domestic salad production.

“GrowUp Farms is part of the evolution of the great British farming tradition, helping to build a more sustainable food system for the UK,” she says. “We are doing things differently and making it mainstream, and businesses like ours have never been more needed for UK food production.”