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The Plant Aims to Create a 'Living Foyer'

By Casey Cora | November 12, 2013 6:49am
 A crowd-funding effort would create a brand new entryway at the green food production facility.
The Plant's Living Foyer
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BACK OF THE YARDS — Walking into The Plant can be a bit confusing.

There's barely a clearly marked entrance, and once inside, guests would be hard-pressed to find any of the food businesses scattered throughout the 93,000-square-foot building, unless you're part of the twice-weekly guided tours.

And good luck trying to buy anything produced there, like aquaponically grown greens, fresh baked bread or giant oyster mushrooms.

But a new project at the sustainable food production facility aims to change all that.

"We've been building these tenant spaces but that means is that our common spaces aren't getting the attention they deserve," said Carolee Kokola, the newly installed director of enterprise operations for Bubbly Dynamics LLC, the company the operates The Plant.

The Plant's workers are turning to the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to raise $61,200 to transform the former meatpacking plant's dingy loading docks into a "Living Foyer," complete with ADA-accessible ramps, plant life covering the walls and the creation of a gift shop where guests can buy the food produced at the facility.

"In classic Plant style, some of the materials we'd use would be salvaged," Kokola said.

If it's funded — about a month remains to raise the cash — the construction of the entryway would be another burst of momentum for the project led by John Edel, recently named by Zagat as one of Chicago's "Ten Power Players."

In addition to the basement mushroom farm, kombucha brewery, sustainable bakery and aquaponic farms — a "closed loop" method of growing greens over tanks of tilapia — a number of new tenants will soon ink deals to become new tenants.

They include a gourmet cheese distributor, a nanobrewery and a larger craft beer brewery that's expected to take up a big portion of space. (The Plant's workers aren't ready to spill the beans about the brewery just yet, but insist it will be a big name beer lovers will recognize.)

Soon, the entire building will be powered by an anaerobic digester that will be filled with spent grain from the breweries, food waste from the Plant's food businesses and neighborhood restaurants, and fats and grease from nearby rendering and meatpacking plants.

Once mixed together, those materials produce a concoction of methane and carbon dioxide known as biogas that will feed a generator providing heat and power to the building.

The project will cost an estimated $3 million and is partially funded by state grant money and loans from the Chicago Community Loan Fund.

Although the digester project is key to The Plant's goal of becoming a "net zero" energy independent and self-sustaining enterprise, it's just one of the nonstop efforts under way there.

During a recent visit, a crane was plucking off gigantic old HVAC equipment from the building's roof to be hauled away on a semitrailer truck. Inside, Edel was meeting with the Plant's Key employees for updates on the digester project.

It's a busy place that always seems to be in a constant state of flux, always evolving toward the goal of getting completely off the grid.

"Once that happens, we'll put our feet up," Kokola said. "Actually, we'll probably never put our feet up."

The Plant sells some items grown at its indoor farms and produced by its tenants at the Logan Square Farmers Market, held every Sunday through March 30 at 2755 N. Milwaukee Ave.