Economic Development / Environmental

The Plant May be the Best Incubator Program You've Never Heard Of

Tucked away in Chicago’s south side, this 93,500 square foot facility contains hidden gems for the future of food and beverage processing, sustainability, and economic development.

By Erin Hallstrom, Digital

A friend of mine recently told me we had to go to The Plant in Chicago. Being Chicago natives and knowing that I cover the food and beverage industry for work, she knew that I’d find the facility, and all that was it in it, intriguing.

Intriguing doesn’t even begin to cover it. I was enthralled; so much so that I came into work the following week and told everyone on our staff about it. 

The Plant, which is run by Bubbly Dynamics (www.bubblydynamics.com), was founded in 2011 by John Edel. “Bubbly” as it is referred to, is dedicated not only to incubating small, local businesses, but also offering ecologically responsible—and replicable—models for sustainable industrial development. To take their mission a step further, Bubbly takes formerly vacant industrial buildings located in disinvested communities and turns them into circular economic opportunities for the surrounding community.

The Plant is housed in an abandoned 93,500 square foot pork processing facility. Bought by Bubbly in 2010, the building was due to be ‘stripped for parts’ but Edel’s vision turned it into a collaborative community of food businesses looking to revalue their “waste.”

You can see the ecological initiatives the second you walk in the door of the facility. The lobby, which used to be the loading dock of the former meat plant, is now enclosed and you’re greeted with a living wall and a walkway that overlooks a greywater pond. Like other facilities with similar installations, The Plant's living wall serves to improve air quality and helps to naturally filter the air before it is circulated throughout the building.

The main floor of The Plant contains both a tap house and a brew house for the Whiner Beer Company (www.whinerbeer.com). As a lot of people know, breweries create a lot of seemingly unusable byproduct. Not here. A capture line runs above the lobby which transports the carbon dioxide from the brewing process and channels it through pipes leading to indoor farms contained in the building. That input helps create more output. 

This kind of circular economics doesn’t stop with carbon dioxide or beer. In fact, The Plant feeds off of ‘Closed Loop/Open Source’ enterprise. Each of the companies contained within The Plant is doing something—if not many things—to help sustain the other businesses within The Plant as well as the entire community.

As we toured more of The Plant, we were able to see the small groups and businesses who run: 

  • An algae bioreactor, which is producing Spirulina, that helps to create homemade fish food inside the Plant. Outside of The Plant, Spirulina is being used by manufacturers as a natural food coloring.
  • An aquaponics farm—combining aquaculture and hydroponics—allows one group to raise fish and grow produce without soil. The fish are fed using spent grains from Whiner Beer Company and the fish waste fertilizes the plants. 
  • A hydroponic farm that grows—and delivers—its microgreens to restaurants all over Chicago. After the greens are harvested, the soil is composted (onsite) and re-used to grow more product. 
  • A miniature anaerobic biodigester, which converts food waste into biofuel, which can be used to help numerous projects at The Plant.

Their facility houses numerous small food and beverage companies, many of which keep their products limited to local distribution to help bolster economic development in the area. Taking it a step further, many of the companies are part of a larger local workforce system, providing jobs and opportunities to people in the surrounding area.

I went into this tour knowing that Chicago is gaining notoriety for its food incubator programs and for being a popular growth capital for urban farming. I left with a new-found respect for closing the waste-energy-resource loop and for seeing with my own two eyes the innovations I only ever read about on our site.