Bill Davidow stopped in recently and introduced me to Ko Nishimura. Ko was peddling lettuce and I explained that we already had plenty of lettuce and why did I need his. Ko said it was rather special and I felt a bit like I was being sold magic beans. I was right. I was invited to the farm in Campbell and when I arrived at a nondescript warehouse I stepped into the farm of the future.
Ecopia Farms™ is a tech startup featuring some pretty bright lights such as Bill Davidow, cofounder of Mohr Davidow the venerable VC firm, and Ko who as CEO grew electronic parts supplier, Selectron, from $93 million a year to over $18 billion. Ko was also on the board of the Santa Fe Institute, a think tank where the Nobel crowd hangs out. Their other co-conspirator is Sam Araki who built satellites for many years as the President of Lockheed Martin Missile and Space Company. So you might be getting the notion that these are not your average farmers or indeed typical startup guys. None of these fellows is exactly a kid but they bring an exuberance to the venture as if it sprung from a dorm room, yet tempered with their daunting collective wisdom.
It is sweetly ironic that Ko and Sam should end up as farmers. As kids their fathers were both farmers who wanted to make sure that their sons weren’t stuck behind the plow, so they went to college and ended up pursuing careers in industry. But here they are – behind the plow. In Japan this is know as “Big Bachi” or the gods reversing your plans by playing a trick on you.
Ko and I agree that our emphasis in this country on food as a commodity as opposed to being a substance we treat with reverence needs to be rethought. Based on income, food is cheaper here than anywhere else in the world but we are losing ground against the interests of agribusiness. Ko says that his grandmother taught him to treat food and life itself as a sacred trust and he feels that he is keeping doing right by her with Ecopia Farms. Sam’s father was an organic agricultural innovator who pioneered the use of bat guano and fishmeal to grow legendary produce. Now they are taking this family heritage and giving it a 21st Century spin. These folks have assembled a powerful team. The COO is Phil Fok who heads up the actual farming. He is turning out both greens and process patents at a prodigious pace.
I have seen several high-rise farming schemes. In fact there is a whole industry devoted to making pretty drawings of 50-story farms that are not remotely practical. Ecopia Farms is different. Using a multi-level growing rack with low-temp high-efficiency controlled-spectrum lights they can make greens stand up and sing. These plants are grown organically in a proprietary soil and they use about 1% of the water of outdoor farming. The installation is part R & D facility and part working farm, shipping to the best restaurants in the Bay Area. They grow tiny micro greens and herbs as well as lettuces, arugula, kale, chard and a host of other items. Many of the whole lettuces are about the size of a rose flower. The first full-scale Ecopia Farms operation is in a 23,000 sq. ft. warehouse (about ½ acre) which produces the equivalent of a traditional 100-acre farm. There is a great deal of unused warehouse space in cities all around the country and Ecopia Farms is gearing up to be the ultimate expression of “locally produced”
By precisely controlling the light, soil and water they take commercially available organic seed and make it produce far more efficiently than can be done outdoors. Naturally one thinks of the electricity used to light all the racks but I’m told that the efficiency is so high that the florescent room lights actually use more power than the grow lights. Add photovoltaics to the roofs and urban farming has come of age.
Some firms in the green space are well intentioned but wholly unworkable. Electric airplanes, viable fuel from algae and self-assembling solar electric farms make nice articles but in the real world are a waste of time. I’ve seen Ecopia Farms and we are now carrying the product. Check our specials menu for a featured salad.
DR. RODNEY PERKINS BREAKFAST SPECIAL 2.0
Dr. Perkins is a friend of mine and has been since the mid-80s when he was my last client before I went into the restaurant business. Rodney happens to be a world-renowned ear surgeon and an inventor. He has a great many patients and has led the world of hearing by merging innovative software with hearing hardware, not unlike Steve Jobs did at Apple.
The only name we have on any of the menu items (besides my wife’s pork chops) is The Dr. Rodney Perkins Breakfast Special. It has been a staple of our menu for nearly 10 years. Not one to rest on his past culinary success Rodney has devised a new incarnation of this old favorite.
Although Dr. Perkins was a founder of the first company to use collagen injections for wrinkles, the first company to commercialized a medical laser that was developed from scratch to be a surgical laser, the first company to introduce high tech signal processing into the hearing device industry and a founder of multiple successful medical device companies in a wide range of surgical specialties, he is inordinately pleased with his spot on the menu and he should be. It’s a healthy omelet – low in fat and calories and remarkably satisfying.
He tells me he is already working on 3.0.
I used to be a general building contractor back in the Pleistocene. My first job was fixing a stuck door in a house in Atherton and three years later I had remodeled the entire 25,000 sq. ft. mansion. Essentially I learned my trade by trial and error on this one house. Then I started job #2.
I went to see a young computer guy in Los Gatos who had bought an unremarkable 1920s tract house that he thought he’d fix up. When we first met he showed me his computer. It was an Apple 2. We sat on the floor in a room devoid of furniture and he explained that he could create a column and a row and by merging the numbers calculate a result. “Big deal,” I thought. I asked him how many employees he had and was startled when he said about 250. Now that impressed me. I had just one, plus my partner and wife, Margaret.
Thus began a year of yet more trial and error. I’ve read the new book about Steve Jobs and I shake my head in wonder that he put up with me for so long. We were actually friends though, and spent a good deal of time together. He and his girlfriend Barbara came up to our house and we frequently went out to dinner. In fact it was Barbara who picked the name for our two-week old second son, Tyler. One day, early in the job, Barbara came home as Steve and I were conferring on the front porch. She was in great distress and said, “John Lennon has been killed.” Steve burst onto tears and we had a group hug. It was a moment of raw humanity with Steve. There was a lot more emotion to come.
The house was a modest one and our aim was to make it a little gem. The problem was I was merely handy and Steve wanted perfection. Building is a skill like any other and to be good at it requires a great deal of experience; experience I didn’t yet have. But beyond that Steve had developed the now well documented notion that even if you think otherwise you can do a lot better than you think you can and that every detail matters.
Once he took me into his basement and pointed out the phone block mounted to a piece of plywood. It had a single wire running across its surface and he asked that we make it straight and evenly space the staples. I just rolled my eyes and argued with him that it didn’t matter. I lost that argument and all of the others. Steve yelled at a lot of people and the reports say he was pretty abusive. He must have cut me some slack because I recall him yelling but it wasn’t memorably vicious.
During the time we were together Apple went public and I now know that he was under a great deal of stress. At work he was fully in command but at home he was less sure. Steve is often pictured sitting on the floor of this house in his profound simplicity and I can report that during the time I knew him he really did sleep on a mattress on the dining room floor and his only furniture was a kitchen table and chairs. The reason he is pictured sitting on the floor is that he could not pick a couch. I know, I went couch shopping with him. I also went car shopping with him. He drove an old Mercedes and after his highly successful IPO at the age of 25 he thought a new car was in order. The very definition of frustrating is car shopping with Steve Jobs. We went to several dealerships and each time the over-choice and flawed design made it impossible for him to pick one and we went home in the old car. Of course he could have just bought them all but Steve was never wired for excess.
One of my last encounters with Steve was when he was holding back payment because of some inadequacies on the job. I was pretty desperate to get paid and early one morning I jumped on him in bed and half-mockingly grabbed him by the neck and told him he better pay me or he was going to be the deadest – youngest – richest self-made man. In the end we worked it out and he paid me.
For many years Steve lived in Woodside but he didn’t feel comfortable coming into Buck’s and I don’t think he ever did. Now that I am older I really appreciate his persnicketyness. Steve wasn’t in a position to teach me my trade, but he was a teacher but if the student isn’t ready…. So Steve, I’m sorry I wasn’t a better craftsman. Now I get it, but alas it’s too late.
MY BOOKS – MINE, ALL MINE, DAMNIT!
I collect rare books. If you’re a collector you know that it is just crazy to pass some things up so I’m fortunate that there are not a great many books in my nitch or I would be broke. I collect books with things in them. Simply that. Books either one-off or editions that have had things applied to the inside. They could contain letters or even envelops. I recently acquired a fantastic collection of 457 ‘covers.’ These are envelops with pictures on the outside commemorating this or that. This collection is one person’s life’s work. The collection dates from the Civil War through the Spanish American War right through WWI. The collector fancied anti-Confederacy pictures many of which are pretty harsh. Well it was war, right?
Several of these books are on display at Buck’s. One of my favorites is in the bar. It is a collection of cigarette cards pasted in a book from the 1920s. Not wildly rare in itself but surrounding the open book in the frame you will see original, miniature tempera painting of the warships of the world. I have several hundred of these tiny paintings with detail so miniscule that the finest details disappears below view and it must have been done under a huge magnifier with a single hair brush.
In the back hall is another book of cigarette card photos, hand-tinted in Algeria, about a hundred years ago. They are sort of harem women and I have shuffled the cards around to display the more demure ones because most of them are pretty naked. They are actually French prostitutes wearing, or barely wearing, lavish costumes. On the wall opposite that is a collection of fabric samples or more exactly the trim used on lampshades and curtains. There is a French word for this trade but I can’t recall it. Please if you know the term clue me in. These materials were manufactured in New York’s Garment District in the 1920s by the Sig Heller Company and it is a salesman’s sample book. One day a fellow came up to me very excited. “I went to grammar school with Siggy Heller the grandson of this manufacturer.” Nice.
Near the back of the restaurant, mounted on two columns, are pages from the one book I specialize in. I have 7 examples and am always looking for more. I have visited the copies at Stanford and the British Library and but have been unable to locate many others. The book, is called Ancient Coins and was published in 1852. It is a brilliant treatise on coins from their invention to late Roman times. That’s a pretty good run but after nearly 3,000 years coins are about to disappear. The books contain 11 pages of coin replicas. In the mid 19th century a new type of binding was invented to replace stitching called ‘perfect binding’ with a glued edge. It is far from perfect and so these books have generally fallen apart. All but one of mine have been rebound. This alone is an interesting tour through the world of binding.…are you still awake…?
Anyway, please, please, please if anyone can think of a pedantic Greek or Latin phrase I can use to refer to this sort of book I would love to start using it.