How Oishii created vertically farmed strawberries—and huge hype

“Hey, we now have the perfect strawberry on the planet. Is there any person right here who needs to style it?”

That was all it took for a pair of MBA college students to allure their method into a few of New York Metropolis’s most gilded kitchens.

Within the spring of 2017, Hiroki Koga and Brendan Somerville used their newly acquired fruit-importing licenses to escort a suitcase of strawberries out of Japan. The berries would solely stay recent for about 72 hours, and the clock was ticking. Having tasted a whole bunch of Japanese cultivars to reach on the ones they’d chosen, they felt strongly in regards to the exceeding high quality of fruit of their possession.

[Photo: Oishii]

After the pair made it previous every kitchen door, the cooks they met with confirmed their suspicions. These berries tasted extra like sweet than fruit, and virtually liquified on first chew. They had been unimaginable, virtually unbelievable. Recent, domestically sourced strawberries are solely accessible within the Northeast for about three early summer season weeks every year—and had been considerably much less drool-inducing than these. So Koga and Somerville wished to know: How a lot would the cooks be keen to pay for berries like these—and the way often—in the event that they had been accessible year-round, from a farm lower than an hour away? “Principally everybody stated, ‘I need these berries,’” Koga remembers. The figures the cooks offered had been encouraging, and the pair walked away from their cold-calling marathon glad.

All that Koga and Somerville needed to do now was determine methods to develop a sort of berry that had by no means been grown earlier than in america, utilizing a way—vertical farming—that had by no means produced berries at business scale wherever.

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[Photo: Oishii]

If you happen to’ve heard of the corporate the 2 based, Oishii, it’s probably since you’re a top-flight New York Metropolis foodie, your Instagram discover web page leans closely towards lacquered comestibles, otherwise you’ve stumbled into any variety of web articles in regards to the firm’s Omakase berries, which carry a headline-worthy price ticket of $50 for a tray of eight. However these strawberries are greater than clickbait. They characterize a possible breakthrough second for vertical farms, these rigorously managed synthetic environments principally used for rising leafy greens, and which have been on the verge of turning into a huge business for greater than a decade. They could maintain the important thing to ridding America’s most pesticide-riddled fruit of pesticides, to not point out the unconscionable quantity of fossil fuels it takes to develop strawberries year-round with conventional farm gear after which ship them from California or Latin America. And they’re additionally a stress check for whether or not the Tesla mannequin of beginning with a luxurious product earlier than transferring to mass market interprets throughout industries.

In fact, the flexibility of those strawberries to alter the world hinges on whether or not these exterior of New York’s tremendous eating scene discover them sufficiently horny and scrumptious.

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[Photo: Oishii]

After I first laid eyes on an Omakase berry, I believed it resembled an anime ruby. On taking a chunk, I used to be impressed by its purity and brightness. It was the flavor-promise made by each earlier strawberry I’d ever had, totally fulfilled, and with a subtly insistent sweetness that stopped simply in need of confectionary. Solely after I attempted a wonderfully tremendous Driscoll’s strawberry a number of days later, although—parsing its comparative dullness with medical curiosity—did I perceive the diploma of distinction at play, and what it meant.

There’s a purpose that Koga and Somerville had been sure they’d appeal to curiosity from high cooks with only one style: Consuming is believing. In terminology borrowed from The Matrix, to take the purple tablet is to find an unlimited fact past one’s present understanding—and for Individuals weaned on U.S. produce, the purple tablet of a Japanese strawberry can have simply such an impact.

As Oishii’s head of promoting Lesia Dallimore put it, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

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[Photo: Oishii]

The alternative of optimizing

After I ask Koga, 34, for his first impressions of American produce upon arriving at UC-Berkeley from his native Japan in 2015, he smiles, in a vaguely apologetic method, for what he’s about to say. “I’ll be very sincere,” he begins. “I feel, for some fruits, California produce is pretty much as good as Japan, however for probably the most half, I used to be actually shocked. And I didn’t even know but that California had the perfect produce in America.”

America is, because it occurs, 2,500 occasions the dimensions of Japan, its huge inhabitants scattered to the 4 winds like blown dandelion seeds. Whereas the varieties grown in Japan are “optimized for shorter transportation and for style,” as Koga says, American farmers develop merchandise in such a method that they will stand up to as much as a week-long journey to their eventual vacation spot. “So even when they’re recent in California,” Koga notes, “they’re simply inferior.”

Koga’s authoritative opinions weren’t born solely out of nationwide delight however moderately a profession that relied on understanding the relative qualities of produce. Again in Japan, he had been a advisor for Deloitte, serving to huge companies implement vertical farms, which the nation had invested closely in years earlier. The job helped him discover one thing he hadn’t fairly realized he’d been searching for. Koga had come of age throughout Japan’s lengthy interval of financial stagnation, which started within the Nineties. The nation’s revolutionary prowess in producing cars, animation, and shopper electronics appeared diminished, if not lengthy gone. Koga was decided to assist revive the nation’s lapsed repute not directly.

“Rising up, I’d at all times thought I wished to take no matter was the perfect that Japan needed to supply and share it with the remainder of the world,” he says. Working for a number of years with dozens of vertical farms, he steadily started to assume that what Japan would possibly do greatest on the planet is vegatables and fruits.

Produce occupies an elevated area in Japanese tradition. As an alternative of wine or whiskey, folks in Japan typically gift each other expensive fruit. As a toddler, Koga at all times knew that if recent strawberries had been on the dinner desk any given evening, it signaled a special day, one thing price celebrating. Produce in Japan wasn’t only a large deal, although; it was large enterprise. In 2019, as an example, a pair of Yubari melons offered at public sale for $70,000 dollars, and a varietal of strawberry referred to as Bijin-hime typically sells for $448 apiece. Solely those that reside inside unspeakable tax brackets can afford such luxuries, however many in Japan are inclined to naturally deal with fruit as an object of great worth. Possibly expertise might create a luxurious good that isn’t out of just about everybody’s attain.

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[Photo: Oishii]

The farm of the long run

The idea of vertical farming has been round for a minimum of a century, in lots of variations. It encompasses city vegetation on Brooklyn rooftops, and hydroponically grown marijuana crops in suburban closets. For the reason that early aughts, nevertheless, amid the clanging alarm bells round international local weather change, vertical farming has emerged as a extra sustainable strategy to develop produce in more and more unstable environments. Nobody can management and even precisely predict the climate, however a well-capitalized vertical farm can maintain dominion over each single facet of a man-made surroundings, custom-designed to every crop’s particular person wants. No pesticides, excessive consistency, and totally replicable throughout all geographic areas. It’s an ideal simulacrum of superb rising circumstances; The Matrix, however for crops.

Though business vertical farms had taken off years earlier in Japan—the place 200 such farms are working, together with class chief Unfold, which produces 11 million heads of lettuce yearly—the observe solely began selecting up within the U.S. across the time Koga matriculated at Berkeley.

“It’s simply attending to the purpose the place there’s beginning to be a gentle provide of Individuals which can be educated up and able to transfer into vertical farming,” says AeroFarms cofounder Marc Oshima.

AeroFarms is among the many most distinguished of the business’s main gamers, together with Loads and Bowery, within the still-nascent U.S. vertical farming business. These three corporations, who specialise in leafy greens, have every raised greater than $500 million of their lifetimes, with Loads identified for its quick food-style branding and Bowery billing itself as the primary post-organic farm. General the sector is booming when it comes to investor curiosity, although. In line with a September PitchBook report, there have been 112 indoor farming offers this 12 months thus far, up 15.5% from this time final 12 months, and capital funding has “skyrocketed” 403.4%, to $2.71 billion.

However for all of the yearslong hype about vertical farming (buoyed maybe, partially, by Quick Firm profiles), its revenue-generation has not but grown at a tempo commensurate with Silicon Valley’s funding. For instance, AeroFarms shared an investor presentation final Could, within the wake of getting introduced plans to go public through a particular goal acquisition firm (SPAC) in March. Within the doc, it revealed that 2021 income can be simply $4 million and it will lose $39 million this 12 months on an EBITDA-adjusted foundation. AeroFarms did, nevertheless, mission that it will generate $553 million in income in 2026 and urged that its whole market potential was $1.8 trillion. A whopping $1.3 trillion of that was recent produce excluding leafy and stem greens.

Vertical farming’s poor money harvest so far might need one thing to do with the business’s typically restricted vary of choices. Standard knowledge holds that leafy greens are probably the most dependable, sensible starter crops for the expertise. Be they lettuce, kale, arugula, or microgreens, they have an inclination to yield probably the most sellable quantity of biomass, and so they’re best to rise up and working. The playbook seems to be: begin out with leafy greens, then determine methods to develop to flowering crops like tomatoes and berries. In its presentation, AeroFarms said that strawberries had been “ripe for disruption” and that the corporate had grown greater than 6,000 berry crops throughout R&D, although it has not gone to market but. Loads and Bowery have yet to do so either.

Therein lies the playbook’s paradox. Vertical farm amenities are costly to construct—AeroFarms stories that its present farm design prices $52 million—and an organization can solely cost a lot of a premium on kale. The gulf between the flavour of commercial and even farmers market kale and the vertically farmed stuff can also be not going to be pronounced sufficient to dazzle tastebuds and open up wallets. By the point an aspiring titan of the business is able to promote flowering crops, they’ve already misplaced tens, if not a whole bunch, of tens of millions of {dollars}.

Alternatively, one might merely skip straight to a premium product like strawberries, which Koga refers to as “the holy grail” of vertical farming. “From speaking with founders on this area within the U.S., it grew to become very clear to me that I had probably the most expertise on this business and everybody was simply actually targeted on methods to develop leafy greens proper,” Koga says. “That they had raised a lot cash, and so they had a lot strain from traders to begin producing income, so I knew that regardless of how a lot time I spent attempting to persuade them, they’re not gonna ditch all that and focus all of their efforts in growing strawberries.”

Going Towards the Inexperienced

The holy grail reverence Koga conferred upon vertical farm-grown strawberries was well-earned. Strawberries are the third most-popular fruit within the U.S., behind solely bananas and apples. The typical American eats as much as eight pounds of them a year however has been conditioned to just accept no matter pesticide-flecked pulp-pebble is offered, given the season.

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[Photo: Oishii]

Koga was decided to upend that market, and he didn’t embark on this quest alone. Whereas his ardour for agribusiness made him an outlier at b-school, Brendan Somerville felt the identical method at UCLA the place he was trying to find an thought that might fulfill his beliefs about the place agriculture ought to go. “I used to be getting occupied with what have we fought over up to now, what are we preventing over now, what’s going to we struggle over sooner or later, and a number of what I used to be was pointing towards meals and water,” he says in an auctioneer-like gust of speech. “I actually wished to assist create a paradigm shift in agriculture, and I had been vertical farming. I visited farms and tried the merchandise. I knew this was the way forward for agriculture. However I simply didn’t see a thesis that was taking off and scaling.”

At the least, he hadn’t seen one till he met Koga.

Somerville had already been red-pilled by the $3-a-pop Tokyo strawberries, served on a stick like sweet apples, that he’d found whereas stationed in Japan throughout his stint within the Marines. He knew this was the sort of product nearly anybody would have the ability to style the distinction between, given a Pepsi Problem scenario. And Koga was the primary particular person he’d met who had the information and contacts to deliver it to fruition (no pun supposed). “He has all of the technique about what the imaginative and prescient is,” Somerville says, “and my position is simply to make it occur.”

The duo, who named their firm Oishii, the Japanese phrase for scrumptious, set in regards to the enterprise of rising fruit that will stay as much as its billing. They examined their thought on the startup pitch circuit, and had been finalists in 2017 within the World Social Enterprise Competitors, after which gained Berkeley’s Launch competitors that very same spring. They scored these accolades for his or her audacious religion in getting previous the a part of the method that had stumped each vertical farmer around the globe who tried and didn’t develop strawberries earlier than.

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[Photo: Oishii]

The Pollination Downside

In contrast to leafy greens, strawberries want pollinators to fertilize their crops, a course of that extends their cultivation cycles exponentially. Mimicking the best climate circumstances is difficult, and so is illness administration—contemplating how for much longer than leafy greens these crops want to stay wholesome for—however high-quality pollination is completely important for making well-formed strawberries that produce excessive yields.

The first hurdle in getting bees to pollinate in an artificial habitat, although, is that bees are usually not silly. At the least they’re not silly sufficient to routinely consider that any synthetic surroundings a artful farmer locations earlier than them is an genuine beehive they occurred to seek out within the wild.

Some vertical farmers have tried to pollinate their crops by bringing in a bee field, which is just what it sounds like. If this system has ever produced encouraging outcomes, it definitely hasn’t produced sufficient of them to achieve business scale. With the intention to get to that degree, Koga and Somerville would want to trick bees into dwelling in symbiotic concord inside a uniquely convincing bee-Matrix. If they may handle that, not solely would the pair have the ability to develop Japanese strawberries wherever on the planet, they’d have the important thing to unlock all the opposite flowering crops as effectively.

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[Photo: Oishii]

After commencement in Could 2017, Koga and Somerville raised their first spherical of seed cash—a phrase given further propriety inside this context—and moved from California to New Jersey, the place they rented a warehouse area. Though the founders roomed collectively in a small condominium, they ended up spending a number of nights crashed out on the ground of the warehouse, duty-bound to a frantic 24-hour deathwatch. That they had toted their strawberry crops over from Japan themselves and had no strategy to supply new ones with out spending extra time and money than they’d. Relying on how every plant responded to the environmental circumstances the 2 created within the warehouse—simulating a good looking day within the foothills of the Japanese alps—they may should tweak particular person parts. The crops had been outfitted with sensors to measure temperature, carbon dioxide, humidity, and several other different fluctuating components, all of which might set off alerts on to Koga and Somerville’s telephones at any hour. Typically the pair would discover themselves working out to the farm at 3 a.m. for what turned out to be a false alarm.

“By the top of it, we simply regarded actually outdated,” Koga says.

All of the whereas, Koga labored his contacts, specialists in each academia and enterprise whom he met throughout his years with Deloitte Japan—partnering with, amongst others, two of the highest vertical farming institutes in Japan. He knew precisely the place to search for ideas and who to seek the advice of all through each stage of the strawberry manufacturing cycle.

Pretty early into the method, the staff witnessed a bee touchdown on one in all their flowers, as if it had been the bee’s personal thought and never, primarily, the results of an insect Turing check. “All of us screamed and it was a second of pleasure,” Koga remembers. “However then there have been nonetheless so many challenges. Even when you might land bees on a flower, that doesn’t imply that they might at all times do it. If bees land on flowers too many occasions, it will get over pollinated; in the event that they don’t go to the flowers, it doesn’t get pollinated. And when you might have tens of 1000’s of flowers within the farm, and also you need them to pollinate each one in all them completely, it’s only a actually rigorous, steady R&D cycle.”

Ask for the key that helped them crack the code and Somerville, typically simply excitable, turns coy. “I can’t provide the roadmap, however I’ll provide the excessive degree,” he says. “So in one in all our farms proper now, we now have robots driving round, taking tens of millions of images of the surroundings and assessing, like, the place are the flowers? How many flowers are there? What are the sizes? What’s the ripeness degree? After which they’re speaking with the tremendous refined sort of robotic beehive. And these bees are actually glad on this good ecosystem, and that permits us to ensure that they’re capable of conduct good pollination.”

Oishii won’t share any extra specifics, however a staff of mechatronics engineers has since helped automate the duties that was completed by the cofounders themselves within the staff’s present facility in Kearny, New Jersey, which has 5 ranges of racks, related in measurement to different lettuce vertical-farm operations. Their days of sleeping within the warehouse are over.

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[Photo: Oishii]

Cooks, retailers, and Instagram influencers

A 12 months and a half after first assembly with high cooks in New York bearing strawberries from Japan, Koga and Somerville returned to the town within the fall of 2018 with their very own invention: the Omakase berry. It not solely replicated the style of the berries they’d imported from Japan, but additionally purportedly took 90% much less land and 0 pesticides to take action.

The fireplace-engine purple Omakase berries, named after a Japanese phrase that loosely interprets to “depart it to the chef,” have a plasticine shine and recessed seeds so deep and evenly spaced they danger inducing trypophobia. They carry a floral fragrance that fills a room straight away, and yield to even the slightest chunk. The sweetness of every berry is measured utilizing the brix scale, with most of them reportedly registering at 13 or 14 brix—greater than double the standard strawberry.

Folks would both discuss in regards to the Omakase’s eyebrow-raising $6-per-berry worth, or they might discuss in regards to the extraordinary style. However they might discuss.

Michelin-star eating places and high-end retailers had been important to spurring this dialog. Literal tastemakers, their religion within the Omakase berry cosigned its ultra-rare excellence for a tony clientele. The primary venues to function them had been eating places like Chef’s Desk and Atomix, the sort of perennially booked-up spots whose menus don’t have costs, and shops like Murray’s Cheese and Eli’s Market, the place New Yorkers store earlier than dinner events after they imply enterprise. Phrase in regards to the berries quickly rippled by the town and past.

“I had heard the excitement about it for a few 12 months and had been eager to strive it however averted it resulting from worry of disappointment,” says Neal Harden, govt chef at abcV, the vegan delight from the Jean-Georges universe inside ABC Carpet in New York. “Finally they reached out to me and I went for it, and I used to be not upset.”

Chef Harden included the Omakase into a wide range of dishes: adorning a chocolate mousse; on high of abcV’s coconut chia pudding brunch bowl: and thinly sliced atop an onigiri of shiso and purple yam sticky rice with black winter truffle and mandarin ponzu. Friends quickly began searching for out the dishes with Omakase berries by title.

The restaurant Suzuki went in the wrong way as abcV, serving its berries complete for dessert—a culinary showcase not in contrast to a complete gallery in a museum devoted to a single portray.

Restricted-time partnerships impressed additional artistic makes use of for the Omakase. Dominique Ansel, the often viral pastry maestro whose concoctions embody the Cronut, teamed up with Oishii for a strawberry chiffon cake, whereas California-based olive oil firm Brightland launched its Lush strawberry vinaigrette final fall. In each instances, the gadgets offered out immediately.

Oishii quickly started to obtain requests from diners left wanting extra, together with random curiosity-seekers. The corporate compiled the inquirers’ contact data on a waitlist, notifying every particular person when there was stock to unload. There was virtually no further provide past what Oishii offered to eating places and retailers, however the firm generally had leftovers from its bumper crops. With little forewarning, they’d open up store on the World Commerce Middle subway cease, promoting strawberry trays like Supreme drops.

In the future, an enormously fashionable meals YouTuber who goes by Xiaomanyc bought a tray of Omakase berries and conducted a free taste test for consumers in Downtown New York’s Oculus. He supplied everybody who got here by a chunk of grocery store strawberries first, adopted by a chunk of Oishii’s. Everybody seemed to be greatly surprised by the distinction. Consuming is believing.

The video attracted a number of consideration, and the corporate noticed a big inflow in its social following. “In hindsight, we should always have thought to try this ourselves,” Koga says with a shrug.

Many different viral hits from influencers would observe, documenting what Oishii’s advertising staff internally discuss with as “the OMG expertise.” One thing in regards to the berries—their hyperreal look, beautiful style, sticker shock (take your decide)—conferred upon them the coveted standing of social-media gold. A cashier at Murray’s Cheese, the place Omakases promote out of inventory each weekend, claims that clients searching for them are inclined to ask about “the strawberries they heard about on Instagram.”

Oishii has shortly cast the sort of model repute that calls for a verdict on whether or not the hype round it’s justified, an irresistible pull. Folks purchase or present the berries and movie themselves or another person having fun with them, after which submit the video on-line. (Oishii’s Instagram Tales are sometimes loaded with these movies.) A part of this inherent shareability might be resulting from the truth that consuming an Omakase seems like an expertise, particularly amid the restricted choices of a world pandemic. Throughout listless days, tasting and debating the standard of primo strawberries would possibly rise to the extent of an outing in its personal proper.

One other crucial issue driving demand, although, is shortage. When Los Angeles-based meals influencer Jason Stewart (who’s additionally cohost of the favored How Lengthy Gone podcast), acquired Omakases from a good friend unexpectedly, he posted an unboxing video to Instagram. He was then stunned by what number of followers and pals messaged him about them. “Everybody was jealous that I used to be the one particular person in L.A. they knew who had one,” Stewart says.

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[Photo: Oishii]

What being the Tesla of strawberries actually means

Whereas the Omakase berry’s social media recognition was galvanizing this previous spring, Oishii raised $50 million in Series A funding, a sign of how critical the corporate is about reaching business scale, and an invite for limitless publications to dub it the “Tesla of strawberries.”

Koga welcomes the affiliation. He cites how Tesla hit so laborious and so early that at the same time as extra sporty electrical vehicles emerged after 2011, Tesla’s model halo has made it one of many world’s Most worthy corporations because it grew to become extra mainstream. At $50 a tray and with restricted availability, the Omakase is much like Tesla’s $100,000 Roadster, of which the corporate solely produced 1,000 in its first era.

The query this comparability begs, clearly, is what will likely be Oishii’s model of Tesla’s $70,000 Mannequin S? And what about its $40,000 Mannequin 3?

The Oishii staff plans to roll out further Japanese strawberry varieties at totally different pricing tiers within the close to future. The corporate is at the moment growing an On a regular basis Berry, a still-premium mannequin that gained’t be fairly as dear because the Omakase, together with one other selection set to compete with typical grocery store fare—which, in response to the USDA, as of February, is a mean of $2.89 for 12 ounces of strawberries.

As well as, following its pollination breakthrough, the Oishii staff is experimenting with all kinds of vegatables and fruits in its vertical farms, together with melons and grapes. Everybody on the staff is mostly tight-lipped about when to count on which merchandise, though Dallimore lets slip that the subsequent crop will, in reality, be tomatoes. Koga FaceTimed her just lately from a cab that he shared with a prototype Oishii tomato. (Reportedly, the tomatoes are “cute,” and may very well be accessible as quickly as subsequent 12 months.)

In line with Somerville, every new fruit or vegetable that the corporate introduces will observe the identical tiered-pricing mannequin that Oishii has deliberate for its strawberries. “Except we’re confirmed that the roadmap for strawberries doesn’t work for these new crops, then that’s precisely the technique,” he says. “You launch with that super-premium, Omakase-level product, you introduce it to a market which really understands it, you construct this type of following round it, after which deploy your subsequent varieties.”

Oishii doesn’t appear to be in a rush to introduce any new gadgets, though it debuted First Flower Berries in September—barely bigger, barely pricier strawberries ($60 for eight) that mark every plant’s first harvest. The corporate’s leaders don’t need to danger jeopardizing the present high quality of its flagship product in spite of everything this work by doing an excessive amount of too quickly.

What the staff is extra enthusiastic about is furthering its present success by opening up extra of its distinctive vertical farms in different areas. First up is a Los Angeles department, which the corporate introduced in mid-October, offering huge reduction for a California foodie group that has, till now, been pressured to look at the Oishii saga unfold totally over social media on the alternative coast. The berries had been first made accessible at Destroyer Culver Metropolis—a hip, Scandinavian-inspired brunch spot—and can ultimately be delivered on to clients’ doorsteps.

After California, the sky’s the restrict. Or moderately, it isn’t. One of many central advantages of vertical farming is it may be completed wherever on the planet, it doesn’t matter what’s taking place within the sky. “The heavy lifting is already just about accomplished,” Koga says. “We all know the recipe, we all know methods to develop these strawberries persistently at a big scale, so it’s actually only a matter of printing the identical factor wherever there’s demand. And once I say ‘wherever there’s demand,’ there’s demand in virtually the entire main cities. We’re getting inquiries each single day from somebody around the globe that desires to accomplice with us to deliver our berries on the market. So it’s actually only a matter of how shortly can we assemble the best staff to execute on this. I can not assure we’re going to have 100 amenities by 12 months XYZ, however we’re not speaking about 10 years, 20 years; we are going to almost certainly construct the primary farm exterior of the U.S. within the subsequent 12 to 24 months.”

Koga appears as assured about Oishii’s future as he had been in regards to the demand in New York Metropolis for premium strawberries—and his means to develop them in vertical farms. He and his companions are actually positioning the Omakase berry as merely the centerpiece of Oishii’s Prolonged Produce Universe. All that issues now’s whether or not everybody who’s visited the world he created to this point will need to stay there.