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Organic garden at Amalie Arena feeds Lightning players, fans

By Laura Reiley
Photos by SKIP O’ROURKE | Times
With Amalie Arena in the background, executive chef Rich Mathis puts the finishing touches on a meal in the hydroponic garden. The garden’s 125 seven-layer hydroponic towers, top right, provide greens, tomatoes, herbs and other assorted vegetables that are served in some of the restaurants inside the arena.

TAMPA

While the Lightning's Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov battle foes on the ice, Amalie Arena staffers fight another menace: aphids.

In addition to hockey and concerts, the arena also is home to a new 1-acre organic vegetable garden that helps feed players and fans — and those aphids. (The solution was releasing 15,000 murderous ladybugs.)

The seed of the idea was planted this summer, when arena general manager Darryl Benge mused how to incorporate more "Tampa" flavor into menu offerings, following a national trend of ballparks and sports arenas showcasing regional delicacies and signature dishes.

This summer two stadiums took it a step further, debuting on-site gardens: Santa Clara, Calif.'s new Levi Stadium has a 27,000-square-foot rooftop garden and AT&T Park in San Francisco opened its edible garden, serving ballpark goodies made with garden vegetables.

And now Amalie Arena has joined in, annexing an outside, out-of-view area in the back devoted to cooling pipes and recycling bins. They built a deck and contracted with Tampa's Urban Oasis to erect 125 hydroponic towers, each with seven layers cradling perlite, vermiculite, coconut coir and peat. The math is tricky, but if each layer yields a square foot of plantable space, the whole thing is more than an acre, enough, as garden manager Chris Depree says, to supply the entire arena with lettuces and herbs on an average day.

Planted in August, butter lettuce, romaine, mesclun mix and other greens are going great guns, the daily harvest used to supply Firestick Grill, the VIP Chase Club and the arena's suites. On a recent Friday, a superabundance of basil had executive chef Rich Mathis thinking pesto, and lots of it. It has caused him to rethink how he cooks for the arena, letting the ripe produce dictate the menu.

"The challenge is that we don't have an a la carte restaurant," Mathis says, describing the innovative addition of a "Living Green Salad" station in the Chase Club, the greens snipped directly from their growing medium.

"Where we used to do 200 salads a night, now we're doing 450 to 500."

There have been failures: The squashes fizzled; the scallions bulked up too quickly. And sometimes there's too much of something. Last week a kale glut meant Lightning players were served steamed kale with pork belly and feta-rosemary polenta.

Several dozen tomato plants are laden with cherry and globe tomatoes about to ripen; a row of eggplants is heavy with tiny fruits likely to ripen a month from now. With a carefully monitored drip system and vigilance about pH levels, Depree and team think they can offer a range of fresh produce nine months out of the year. In a sense, Florida's quirky growing season (tough in the summer, great the rest of the year) perfectly suits the Lightning's hockey schedule.

So far the management hasn't finalized how to broadcast the garden's bounty to arena-goers with formal branding. Will they use a generic term like "farm to table" or something jazzier like "Lightning Farm Fresh"?

Either way, Mathis says it's made the menu a bit more "veggie centric." For Benge, Depree and Mathis, the garden represents a new challenge.

"For me, it's about learning something new," said Mathis, standing in front of a forest of romaine and something called Black-Seeded Simpson Lettuce. "I've never planted a green in my life."

Benge estimates the payback on their initial investment — between $30,000 and $40,000 in supplies, with volunteer labor — in hydroponic equipment will be five years. A lot can go wrong to change that projection, but judging from the profusion of greens, herbs and veggies at Amalie Arena, they're hardly on thin ice.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.