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From farm to fork: Clayton Farms and fresh salads

Sarah Currier
Clayton Mooney holding up tray of greens at the Clayton Farms Salads location

In the fall of 2014, Iowa State alumnus Clayton Mooney moved back to Ames and enrolled in ECON 334 (Entrepreneurship in Agriculture) at Iowa State University. During the class, he met four other students and worked with them to develop the idea of KinoSol, Mooney’s first agricultural technology business. Following this creation, Mooney’s time was spent abroad in developing regions, where he helped implement KinoSol’s solar food dehydrators.

As he traveled the world installing solar food dehydrators in Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Brazil, one question was always at the forefront of his mind: How do we create access to the food that people deserve?

One evening, Mooney posed this question on his blog. His business partner, Danen Pool, had a response for him—but with a catch.

“He said that the answer was indoor farming, but he told me that most indoor farms get it wrong,” Mooney said.

Mooney and Pool cofounded Nebullam Farm in 2017 as a way to help other indoor farms. By partnering with local grocers, farmers and chefs, Nebullam Farm was able to help them become more efficient and sustainable by making data-driven decisions. However, the restaurant shutdown caused by COVID-19 in 2020 forced them to reevaluate their business model.

“I kept coming back to the question that I originally posed on [my] blog that led to the genesis of [Clayton Farms],” Mooney said. “In my opinion, it’s owning the supply chain. If you are owning the supply chain, you have to be a good steward of the land … If you don’t understand each step of producing the food that goes on someone’s plate, it’s very easy to accidentally waste [resources] or to not realize that you are wasting [resources].”

In order to succeed, Mooney began to apply the skills he had learned throughout his career to his own indoor farm, which was located in a 1,000-square-foot facility at the ISU Research Park. Nebullam Farm was rebranded as Clayton Farms and began growing leafy greens, microgreens and cherry tomatoes. 

In 2022, another opportunity for Clayton Farms appeared. The storefront next to North Grand Mall, which previously housed a Fazoli’s, was up for rent. Mooney, who had been looking for a storefront to begin selling salads out of, jumped on the opportunity to move into the space.

The location next to the North Grand Mall opened in March of 2023 and currently serves as a drive-thru restaurant. Thanks to the windows, patrons can see the greens planted on rows of vertical farming trays that are going into their salads before the plants are harvested.

“For the first time ever, we were able to showcase our technology in a public setting,” Mooney said. “When we opened, we had people coming through that, at first, didn’t even order something. They just pulled up and … stopped and stared, like, ‘What is going on?’… This [restaurant is] the first of its kind in the world where we’ve converted a dining space to the farm. What we’ve realized through customer feedback, through surveys, social media, individuals even just calling us on the phone here is, ‘I have an appreciation that you’ve shown me where my food comes from.’”

When someone pulls into the drive-thru at Clayton Farms Salads and orders a salad, wrap, soup or smoothie, the employees have to walk only about 15 feet out of the kitchen to harvest the greens. From there, the greens are taken to the prep table, where they are chopped up and then placed on the salad assembly line before being served to the customer through the window.

All of Clayton Farm’s bowls are made of compostable, recyclable materials due to the feedback they received when they opened.

“We had customers of ours with the subscription box models that we run reach out and say, ‘Please tell me the salad bowls are going to be compostable. And please tell me the napkins are 100% recycled material,’” Mooney said. “Then, we realized we’ve got to listen to our customers. If we make that investment, the loyalty is going to be there… If they want a fully sustainable product and a service, that’s what we have to offer.”

Since Mooney dislikes the water waste associated with traditional farming, Clayton Farms Salads recycles all of its water so that none of it goes to waste.

“We’re trying to … put the plants on a boxer’s diet,” Mooney said. “They get exactly what they need. No more, no less. Whatever the plants are not consuming now, they’ll consume later. And that’s really important to us. … To give you an idea, for every [month] we grow food here, we save one year’s worth of water when compared to traditional ag methods.”

One of Mooney’s main goals is to have Clayton Farms Salads franchised in the next few years.

“We have realtor partners looking at both Iowa and Minnesota for our next company on locations,” Mooney said. “If we come across the right location at the right price point, then we’ll launch as soon as possible for our next location.”

Mooney also hopes that Clayton Farms Salads can get the Guinness World Record for the world’s freshest salads.

“We think we can get it down to 15 seconds from basically harvesting a head of lettuce, running it over to table, [putting it] into a salad bowl and then out the window to somebody,” Mooney said.

Clayton Farms Salads is open from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. More information can be found on their website, including recipes using their microgreens.

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    Jim Quarnstrom | Apr 29, 2024 at 10:20 am

    GREAT salads and wonderful people! Give them a try!