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Businesses putting down new roots in St. Louis' new 'greencubator'

Businesses putting down new roots in St. Louis' new 'greencubator'

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Three small businesses are sprouting up near St. Louis’ riverfront, in a building dubbed the “greencubator.”

In 2009, a factory north of downtown that printed labels and tags for food packaging relocated to Collinsville, leaving the space abandoned. The building was nearly sold to make way for a proposed new football stadium development, but when the NFL left St. Louis, Sev-Rend CEO Robert Williams Jr. was left without a plan for the property.

At the end of 2016, the nonprofit Justine Petersen accepted the building as a donation from Williams, and went about figuring out the best use of the space. Eventually an idea took hold: convert the building into a place for urban agriculture and food-based businesses.

After all of the attempts to develop the riverfront, said Galen Gondolfi, chief communications officer for Justine Petersen, “could it all of a sudden potentially become, you know, this Cortex on the riverfront? ... And if not a Cortex, at least a hub for startup activity?”

The building at 1124 Lumiere Place Blvd. required major renovations. Justine Petersen received a $780,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a $480,000 grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health, and got to work on construction in the fall of 2017.

The William A. Kerr Foundation also contributed $200,000 to help with the rehabilitation of the property.

Today, the flooring has been redone, brickwork has been patched and electricity and plumbing are up and running. On June 27, a grand opening from 4 to 7 p.m. will showcase the three businesses that now call the space home.

Good Life Growing

Good Life Growing was founded after a group of friends started growing produce on a plot of land in north St. Louis.

It started as a hobby, but soon they were growing more than they could eat, according to CEO and co-founder James Forbes.

They decided to sell their produce at farmers markets, then began supplying restaurants. Last year they won an Arch Grant.

“It was truly like an accident. We weren’t supposed to be a business, it was just like ‘well, we’re selling lettuce. Maybe we should put it in the bank,’” Forbes said.

Now they have 11 employees, two of whom came from an apprenticeship program that Good Life Growing works with.

Anyone can apply to the apprenticeship program, Forbes said, but Good Life Growing has a focus on individuals who have been recently incarcerated or are transitioning out of homelessness.

At the Greencubator, the team has been busy building their hydroponics system, which allows them to grow produce indoors, year-round.

The setup consists of racks that support rows of pipes, laid out horizontally. The pipes have holes cut out of them where leafy plants like red veined sorrel and red oak leaf peek out, glowing violet under the grow lights.

The team is also preparing to introduce bluegill fish into large, 300- and 650-gallon tubs of water. The water from the pools will be pumped through the pipes, providing the plants with precious nitrogen from the fish matter.

St. Louis Indoor Produce

Upstairs from Good Life Growing, another hydroponic operation is in the works. It will eventually become a forest of vertical, nine-foot tubes filled with basil.

Because the plants’ entire ecosystem is indoors, Chief Creative Officer Olivia Engel said, they can grow year-round and without concern for outside factors like flooding and droughts.

One of the main challenges of hydroponics, Engel said, is replicating sunlight. The team’s answer to this challenge is a prototype for a liquid-cooled, highly efficient, powerful light, which could eventually become a main source of revenue for the startup.

“We are a farm, and we are trying to feed people, but we also do want to improve the industry,” said CEO and co-founder Venkat Papolu.

Freddie Lee’s Gourmet Sauces

Around the corner from Good Life Growing, on the ground floor of the Greencubator, Deborah James and Freddie James Jr. are moving their business into its new home.

Freddie, 65, and Deborah, 56, are a husband-and-wife team and currently the only employees of their approximately 11-year-old business, Freddie Lee’s Gourmet Sauces.

On Wednesday, Deborah James said, they are bringing in one new employee, but so far the couple have built up the business on their own, supplying 605 stores with their signature sauce.

“Right now I’m the janitor, the filler, the cook, you know, whatever,” Freddie James Jr. said. “We got many hats.”

By next year, they’re hoping to have 45 to 50 people working for them.

Deborah James’ favorite use for the sauce is meatloaf, and Freddie James Jr.’s favorite is spaghetti.

Truly, though, “it’s just an all-purpose sauce,” Freddie James Jr. said. As his wife attests, Freddie is also dedicated to grilling, no matter what the conditions.

“It could be snow up to here,” Deborah James said, and her husband will still be outside grilling.

Freddie James Jr., a retired construction worker, displays the first standard kitchen pot that he ever used to cook the sauce. He also has the larger pot he eventually upgraded to, which takes up nearly the entire stove top.

But the shining new cooker, an 80-gallon kettle, is the unmissable new appliance in their space at the Greencubator.

“That’s my Cadillac, right there,” Deborah James said.

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