City Paper is not for tourists
Bar basements can be dank, scary places full of dusty bottles, secrets, and ghosts. But when you descend the stairs into the underbelly of Bloomingdale’s The Pub & The People,you’ll come across a small room filled with humming white lights and every shade of green in a Sherwin-Williams catalogue.
Admit it, you thought this was a 4/20 story about some sweet underground ganja. It’s not. What you’ll actually find are trays of soil-grown microgreens—itty bitty versions of vegetables and herbs including mustard greens, pea shoots, beet greens, Thai basil, sorrel, and arugula. Little Wild Things, an urban farming company founded in Dec. 2014 by Mary Ackley, grows and sells the fairy-sized greens to area restaurants including Zaytinya, Hazel, minibar by José Andrés, DC Harvest, and more.
Tasting the microgreens is like one magic trick after another. A peewee leaf of micro-celery tastes like a fully-formed stalk, and a pinch of the peppery mustard greens mimics the moment you realize you’ve put too much wasabi on your sushi. They’re the gymnasts of the produce world (small but powerful) and there are benefits to eating them beyond their explosive flavor.
The USDA Agricultural Research Service and the University of Maryland studied the nutrient density of microgreens and concluded that they can have four to six times as many vitamins as mature leaves from the same plant.
Ackley says, “I don’t want to be a snake oil salesperson. They’re beautiful and super flavorful.”
Bettina Stern, one of the co-founders of Chaia, agrees. The casual vegetarian taco restaurant in Georgetown is one of Little Wild Thing’s biggest customers, demonstrating that it’s not just Michelin-starred chefs who tweeze microgreens onto fine dining dishes.
“What they’re growing for us is the cherry on the top of that vanilla ice cream,” Stern gushes. “They’re the most beautiful, healthy, strong, big, glorious, hyper-local microgreens, and we top every single one of our tacos with them.” Stern admits Little Wild Things is one of the restaurant’s biggest expenditures when it comes to ingredients, but Stern says it’s worth it because the microgreens help bring a chef-driven quality to the tacos.
Ackley says restaurants today are looking for quality ingredients and, like Stern, are willing to pay a premium price to work with Little Wild Things. Because the operation is so small, restaurants can place wholesale orders through an online portal and have the microgreens, edible flowers, or other products harvested and delivered the same day via Postmates. Weekly deliveries are also an option, and some chefs enjoy picking them up in person.
It doesn’t get any more local than that, and that’s exactly what Ackley is going for. “Local has been defined as 200 miles from D.C., which is not actually local,” she says. “There’s not anything wrong with those farms, but we’re trying to redefine what local means.”
Ackley asserts that Little Wild Things has found success because she’s laser-focused on business. When most people hear “urban farming,” they think of social justice focused non-profit organizations that work to address issues like getting discounted produce into the hands of the city’s food insecure. “We’re the only one that’s a production farm trying to make money off of it,” Ackley surmises. She knows producing vegetables is very hard to do in a commercially viable way, but she’s trying to prove it’s possible.
That’s not to say Little Wild Things isn’t a good neighbor. The small space under The Pub & The People isn’t large enough to meet demand, so Ackley and her farm manager Chelsea Barker also operate an outdoor farm down the street at Carmelite Friars Monastery (2131 Lincoln Road NE). In lieu of paying to use the land, Little Wild Things makes donations to So Others Might Eat and to the monastery whenever possible.
The company contracts with Veteran Compost. “The local composting company is owned and operated by military veterans,” Ackley explains. “They make a custom, organic soil mix for us. Each week they pick up used soil and then re-compost it.”
There are ways to get your hands on Little Wild Things salad blends and microgreens if you’re not a chef with special access to the online catalogue. You can order them online through Washington’s Green Grocer and From The Farmer or you can shop for them in person at Each Peach Market (3068 Mt. Pleasant St. NW) and Little Red Fox (5035 Connecticut Ave. NW).
As for what’s next, Little Wild Things is looking for a larger, permanent place. Ackley is currently in talks with developers and hopes to take advantage of an underutilized space in the District. Additionally, Little Wild Things plans to launch a “salad CSA” that would enable neighborhood residents and others to sign up to pick up bags of salad mix and microgreens on a regular basis. Stay tuned for details about the CSA on the Little Wild Things Instagram account, where chefs and home cooks can also find recipes.
Little Wild Things Farm,1648 N. Capitol St. NW; (313) 784-0498; littlewildthingsfarm.com