These $50 ‘strawberries’ are popping up on Michelin-starred menus
When purchasing a crate of strawberries at a neighborhood market, the modus operandi usually goes something like: “the redder the berry, the better the taste.” But Hiroki Koga and Brendan Somerville, founders of New Jersey-based Oishii Farm, seek to upend that notion with a new creation: the Japanese strawberry, also referred to as the Omakase berry.
Grown in an indoor vertical farm by the Hudson River, the berry is produced using seeds that the founders imported directly from Japan. “They are completely natural,” explains John Reed, the company’s marketing manager. “They are not in any way genetically modified, they are completely pesticide-free. They are perfectly clean, never even touched by a bare human hand. They don’t have to be washed [prior to ingestion] and there are no concerns about anything unnatural going into your body when you eat them.”
Clearly appealing to a public craving all things natural, Koga and Somerville, who met through an entrepreneurship network while pursuing MBA programs in California, are no strangers to the food world. Somerville worked on a few startups in the food space while Koga did a wide range of management and consulting in the industry before opening up Oishii (which translates to “delicious” in Japanese) in 2016. Hailing from Japan, Koga immediately noticed the sub-par quality of American produce as compared to what can be eaten in his country of origin and decided to do something about it.
“The flavor of an amazing strawberry is so different from what you typically eat in the United States,” Reed says. To create the ideal berry, Oishii Farm controls for two main elements: texture and color. Although cagey about the specifics of production, Reed concedes that the fruits are to be of appropriate firmness and boast a more subtle color than the usual deep red of American strawberries.
“We monitor our farm very carefully,” Reed explains. “There’s only one specific day for each plant when the berries are going to be at optimal flavor and so we have our farming experts identify berries that are at peak ripeness daily, that’s why you’ll see identical color and firmness in the texture of the [fruits].”
The omakase strawberry is, indeed, delicious: juicy, firm, and sweet—it truly does taste like what you’d suppose a great berry should taste like, also emanating an unusually strong aroma. Although at first glance it appears to look identical to its American counterpart, a closer inspection reveals a key difference: whereas a typical berry features pronounced green seeds on the outside, the omakase strawberry boasts sucked-in seeds that create a dimpled sort of look on the surface.
In production since 2018, the omakase strawberry is still only available within New Jersey and New York, both as an ingredient incorporated at higher-end restaurants and, inventory permitting, to private individuals who can place an order online. In the latter case, buyers end up purchasing an entire experience: $50 will get you a crate of eight strawberries (about 35 grams each), delivered by an Oishii team member at a pre-established meeting spot. Said team member will explain the concept behind the product while revealing how best to enjoy it. (The fresher, the better.)
So far, mostly New York City restaurants have reveled in the offering. The first eatery to serve the strawberries was Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare back in 2018. Since then, a slew of other chefs have jumped on the bandwagon: including the Michelin-starred restaurant Atomix and Instagram-famous pastry shop Dominique Ansel Bakery.
A mere glimpse at the farm’s Instagram account hints at the versatility of the berry, at least as it is currently used by the various cooks: Ansel created a strawberry sando (Japanese for sandwich) by filleting the berry and combining it with a light chiffon cake and a light cream; chef George Mendes at Aldea used it in his arroz doce (classic Portuguese rice pudding) and topped it with cinnamon and ice cream; sushi chef Kazushige Suzuki at Onodera, on the other hand, serves the fruit as-is.
As Reed explains it, the company’s goals of expansion are dual in nature: the team wants to broaden the reach of the strawberry to include areas well beyond New York while also diversifying the product line. If the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list—which highlights the fruits and vegetables found to have the highest amount of pesticide residue—is of any indication, the potential for variation is pretty vast. Although strawberries appear on the list annually, there are at least 11 other commonly “contaminated” products that the farm could potentially grow, such as apples, peaches, cherries, tomatoes, spinach, and potatoes.
“I definitely see a bright future for indoor vertical farming,” Reed says. Acknowledging that certain crops—wheat and corn, for example—will likely continue to be cultivated outdoors, Reed posits that growing certain fruits and vegetables in lab-like environments may have its advantages: “Certain elements benefit much more from indoor agriculture, from being grown fresh and consumed almost immediately, strawberries are definitely one of them.”
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