Gino Borges:
Thank you for joining us today on The Journey to Impact with Matthew Moore, a multimedia artist and entrepreneur based in Phoenix, Arizona. His art practice explores the broad issue of placemaking by creating large-scale installations to achieve a state of wonderment and contemplation as an invitation to change. He uses these tools in his entrepreneurial ventures from founding an architectural design and furniture company to designing concepts for farm-to-table restaurants. Specifically, Matt is the Co-Founder of Greenbelt Hospitality, a private-public partnership with the city of Phoenix that seeks to democratize the farm-to-table movement, to better educate families on their food systems through a generational amenity in the city center.

Matthew Moore:
Thanks for having me.

Gino Borges:
Let’s touch first on how all of the things that you’re working on are meeting the moment and being impacted by the Coronavirus. Where are you professionally and personally concerning the Coronavirus?

Matthew Moore:
It changes from day to day, depending on what decisions are being made, or, unfortunately, what newsfeeds blasted on the radio in the morning. I’m bombarded with something that changes my mindset. Overarchingly, I come as a fourth generation farmer into the world. When you’re farming, an act of God is always out there. Some things you can’t control inevitably from the minute that you have seed in your hand and put it in the ground to the minute of harvest. There are continuously things that we cannot control. It’s something that’s helped me a lot in these times because it seems not to trivialize how unique this whole situation is. It is like nothing we’ve ever experienced, of course. But staring in to the face of a storm, not knowing what’s on the other side, is something that you have to build your backbone with being raised in agriculture. That’s the foundation that I keep on trying to come back to, but the challenges from each business are still unique – some of them immediate, some like battleships that are moving slowly in the night, hoping that they can pivot accordingly. The public-private partnership with Greenbelt is with national, state, and city parks. That is a battleship with many things happening in the city mechanisms. However, with the generational view of this, we’re all working towards it, moving forward and just understanding this as a level of reality that we face in the long-term partnership that we have. That still seems to be moving forward. We keep on spinning that plate if you will. To keep it moving on the fabrication and millwork side, we pivoted right away into creating PPE, personal protective equipment, like intubation boxes, for hospitals. We’ve sent over 200 units around the nation to different hospitals. That layer of purpose was able to appear and help us not be paralyzed by which is an unknown each next quarter. The farm itself is just crazy things that you don’t think about. We’ve all now been introduced to this idea that farmers across the nation are throwing out milk because the way our supply chain works, it can’t meet a customer directly. The supply systems need to adjust themselves, to be able to get the product to the people who need it. Our carrots and other produce such as barley, we sell to dairies. Our dairy prices are our main barley prices. We’re locked in with dairies, and they’re struggling. We’re coming to them, saying, “Don’t worry about the contract, you don’t need to sink on it.” We’re all trying to work together to figure out how we can just not have to do that. I have carrots that are going to be about 220 days in the ground right now, which is extremely long for that product to be there. But again, we’re hoping that the weather holds a little bit longer and we can just make it through as things move through the course. They might not, and then we’ll deal with that when it arrives.

Gino Borges:
Do you typically have a somatic feeling when you’re able to take that faith of farming and acts of God into the secular context? Let’s talk about Greenbelt Hospitality, because from my elementary understanding, there’s been many moments of faith and uncertainty.

Matthew Moore:
In the world of farming, there’s always something to do. There’s always something to be done even in the face of failure. That’s tilling the ground under to be able just to try again next time. It’s the same when you hit these endless hurdles in a public-private partnership. If you have an idea, get your investors and your team together, and then you start to execute, and there’s some hurdles here and there with planning and zoning. But when you get into the public-private partnership, when you’re asking the community “What is it you want?,” you’re asking a data set of, for us, it was a four-mile diameter of the site. Of course, we’re humans, and everybody’s got a want that isn’t equal. How do you meet that? When those speed bumps come, how do you keep on moving? We’ve faced that over the years that we’ve been doing this where we have some hurdle that is like, “Oh, well. That’s it. This is all done.” But again, there’s always something else. Even if it’s, yes, we’re going to fail, what are we going to take from this? We inevitably end up salvaging it. In the field, the first carrot field this year is a 35-acre field that we have. We thought we were going to lose it. About two weeks ago, we thought we were going to have to dis the whole thing. When they go to seed, the core of it turns into wood and you can’t use them anymore. You can’t see the difference between them on the packing line. You would be packing wood into your bags, and then all hell breaks loose. We were staring down that pipe. All of a sudden, after two weeks of no mobility, no movement, no harvest, all of a sudden it turns on. We were able to get through that 35 acres. But if you were to rewind the tape five months before that, when we planted it, we had these crazy rainstorms at the beginning of our planting season. We were thinking about disking that field because we didn’t think we had the stamp. We’ll just lean into it and just see what happens. It’s going to be terrible yield, and we’ll just write it off. And, here we are. We’re worried about that field that we’re not going to get the harvest it, even though we already written it off. We thought we had already failed, but now we’re on the second level of “Oh, we’re going to fail again.” And, it did great and the yield was better. We thought we were going to have half the yield, and we ended up with a great yield; everything was fine because the carrots got to sit in the ground longer than they normally did. They sized up more, and they had more yield. It’s those things where if you take that thousand-foot view, rather than being in it and staring at it, you hit these moments where it’s insurmountable, yet over again, every single time, if you lean into it, you just keep on going out farther and farther. There’s always something to be done. There’s always something to learn. It does nudge it a little bit further along, and then the dam breaks. You just can’t think about that even though. You can’t let it control your lens of not being able to find a solution or find another mini-step forward at any of those moments. That is the backbone in agriculture: persistence.

Gino Borges:
In some ways, Greenbelt Hospitality is a version of trying to find a way to grow within a cultural dust storm because it’s a unique project. What’s your inspiration for Greenbelt Hospitality, and what has the evolution of that project looked like?

Matthew Moore:
My partner, Aric Mei, a third-generation restauranteur, has his trajectory on the hospitality operations, understanding the experience of plate and table. My experience comes from what we’ve been batting around. I went to undergrad at Santa Clara University just outside of San Jose, California to get an ag-economics degree. I couldn’t stay awake in macroeconomics and ended up taking an art history class. I fell in love with art.

At that point moment in my life, my family’s land was being overtaken by suburban sprawl. This was back in the 2004-2005 boom, especially the city of where my farm is located. It was listed as the fastest-growing city in the US for multiple quarters at the time. The tragedy was the possibility of losing this family business. I came back from school and started running the farm and watching the change, realizing that it was complex. The reason development was making sense has to do with the reason why conventional agriculture makes sense, and we’re a part of this process. However, we’re still in the process of loss of generational knowledge in terms of where our food comes from and how we continually separate ourselves. I went on this journey around advocacy and art, just questioning, not with any answers, because like any good farmer, I have no idea what I’m doing daily and any farmer that says they know what they’re doing is full of shit. I was looking for real soul and essence. Art allows you to use it as a lens to understand what’s affecting the most about this process, and this a loss potentially. In that process, I realized that I had no idea what it meant to be a farmer, until I put it on the pedestal of what I was losing, realizing that I’m a part of this process that is lost. That generational knowledge has already started to be lost in my activity as a farmer. I wanted to figure out how to create a place to answer some of those questions for myself and then for the community. Then, I had two sons. Ask any farmer kid, the first thing you want to do is get off the farm, but there’s something about feeding people, stewardship, and empathy. That is a part of that process that is important for our world right now. There’s much hope in it. Art allowed me to think about my purpose, social-driven core, that everything else is built around. We’ll figure out how to make it beyond that.

The core of the Greenbelt project is that Eric and myself felt there needed to be more opportunities to introduce people to these important things about hospitality and about feeding people with empathy and stewardship – these key things that actually build community and provide a better place for us to live in. Farm-to-table as a marketing tool, it’s very powerful. However, it’s been lost a little bit in the journey on of a business. It’s just become a little bit of a branding exercise, but at its core, for somebody to experience their food, seeing it grown, somebody making a meal for you, coming onto the plate and having somebody serve you creates community that goes beyond a lot of the things. That’s at the core of it – a place to mature my family’s generational engagement with agriculture and do something much bigger and outside the boundaries of what we’ve ever experienced for that next generation of my sons and their kids.

Gino Borges:
Where’s the project at now? What is coming together? Put it on the plate for us.

Matthew Moore:
On the farm-to-table movement, there are a lot of the models out right now. Eric and I were painting this vision years ago, questioning why is it that farm-to-table farm to table experiences are extremely expensive and once in a lifetime events, even if the farm is right next to it. It is a real estate and a labor problem. When you think to put an acre of agriculture and an acre of hospitality in a downtown core, the restaurant can pay market rate, that farmland cannot. If you bring it into that downtown core, then you’re going to have to raise your price per plate, to be able to subsidize that whole venture. We spent time trying to figure out how to make sense of it. We know that we need at least one acre of agricultural land to offset the P&L of the restaurant to be able to make it worth it. We had our size minimum, and then also, why one restaurant? One restaurant forces you to do certain things, to be able to use all that produce and it forces a price. Then, let’s do multiple concepts. We started to build this little map of how we could make this work. Then, you put it against a real estate test. We have a minimum of one acre to two acres of farmland with two to three farms and restaurant concepts under 10,000 square feet under roof with big patios. That adds up to around 3 ½ to 4 ½ acres. You can find it in suburbia, but that’s not having the impact that we’re talking about. We started to go to Maricopa County and asking for agricultural tax abatement on our parking infrastructure. We started talking to the health inspectors, like, “Can we just put one refrigerator on the site that everything goes around?” We don’t have to have this multiple play. We’re looking at efficiencies. We were then introduced to the mayor of Phoenix at the time, Greg Stanton. He just loved this idea and wanted talk to us because the city has land and would love to do something like this. We go down there, and they put the big picture on the wall. Phoenix is the largest landowner. We start looking at sites, and Eric and I point at a park, like what’s what about that? They’re like, no, you can’t talk to parks. Why not? Can’t we talk? No.

This woman in economic development, bless her; she’s amazing. She’s said, “Well, I’ll get angry Erickson down here right now, and you can talk to her.” Angry Erickson, the director of parks, comes down and we’re at this big city table. It’s the table that all deals are broken upon. It’s like 15 feet long and 6 feet across. We’re already on the other side, sitting there with the arms claw cross, like, “Oh, here’s some developers again, trying to take her away.” We just started talking to her about this idea. What if, what if there was a two-acre farm that acted like a park in the middle of a downtown density on a piece of parkland. On that parkland, the concessions are not corndogs and cotton candy, but vegetable-driven plates grown there on the park. People could just walk into this regional park and they can buy it there. It could be open from 6:00 AM until 10 p.m.; they have approachable price points all day long. A portion of the revenue would go into the parks. She started, “Where do you guys come from?” I showed her my artwork, pictures of agricultural big land art pieces, where I invited the whole city of Phoenix to downtown Phoenix. We took over a long stretch of property and put a table down the middle of the street and took over the road. She loosened up and went back upstairs. She didn’t even bring business cards down because she was sure that that was going to be a pointless meeting. She had to go back up to her office to bring down her business card. Three weeks later, we were talking about this idea. The realm began around “we’ll give you a five-month, five-year lease.” No bank is going to go behind that. Then, we started talking about how the farm, the land, wants a generational lease, 50 years. We said we can do 40 years. We have a 40-year land lease locked up. I’m skipping ahead a bit. The park then said, we’re going to create a request for proposals, and we’re going to send it out to everyone in the world. This is this entrepreneurial moment where the greatest difficulty at public-private partnership is that you take your idea that you blueprinted out and hand it across the table. They say, “Okay, thanks. I’m going to print this out in different words, and we’re going to send it out to everybody. Hopefully, you have a chance of winning it.” There was this big submission, and we won by the skin of our teeth. Then, we went forward with the next process, which was to ask the community if this is something they would want on their regional park. There were a lot of other logistics, but community support was the biggest. We had five community meetings. We knocked on 400 doors adjacent to the park. We sent out 30,000 mailers to a two-mile radius of the site. At the end of the day, we had 1500 unique people come through those community meetings, which is an impressive outreach. We had about a 90% approval rating which you can’t even get that for a dog park. The model is to circle back around to what it is and what it’s going to feel like about two miles from Sky Harbor Airport, in the core of downtown Phoenix. There is this 27-acre park; two acres of organics annually productive agriculture will be there open to the public as a park. During park hours, people can walk in, and there’s no charge. Adjacent to that will be these two concepts, under 10,000 square feet of roof that are serving everything that we’re growing year-round. We also have an education center that’s doing programs that are specific. There are about 20 schools within a two-mile radius of our site. We’ve already worked with a lot of them about providing the space to them for their curriculum. There’s an endless amount of people excited, from the USDA to farm service agency, about having this agricultural amenity in the city core. It gets down to what we’re facing now; people are starting to grow their food when they’re holed up in their house. It’s a revolution.

Gino Borges:
As we wrap things up, where do you want to leave your audience? What’s occupying you now?

Matthew Moore:
We’re blessed. We were supposed to open up in November of 2019, and we would have been throttled right now. The precedent of the project has moved from city parks to national parks to create a template for other cities to use. They could see how you could build this lease and have an operator that was leasing this land. The city still owns the ground under it, and we’re paying rent. That’s a percentage rent on top of that. There’s a base rent and a percentage rent. If we do well, they do well. That money goes back into the park, not into the city fund. We built all that to make sure that this was something that could be recreated in other cities. With that, we’re the first people that do something like this. There’s much red tape. It just pushed us along to where we’re getting thrown up to that national level. You can imagine it’s just yours, you don’t have the ability to tell people like, Oh, this is what we’re thinking about doing. It shouldn’t be a pitch like a lobbyist. It should live and die on its own merits. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve again cast out the best that we could. We’ve done everything that was asked of us.

Now it’s in this process, but we are incredibly close. We do feel like the official highest approval will happen here in the next few months. We’re just moving along. A lot of the furniture and the design was that I’ve been making artwork and being in museums and institutions around the world. What I found was is that that want to design can be a very limited experience, much like democratizing the farm-to-table. A lot of the design endeavors came around this idea of what space are we going to create that is imbued with all of these ideas of stewardship, the beauty of food, and capturing that in a built environment.

Originally, that was the impetus behind making this furniture and millwork company. It also allowed me to start a business. Agricultural businesses are specific. When we’re getting into a hospitality and operations, Aric is a genius operator. I’m thankful to have him because otherwise I’d be sunk. The company for the furniture millwork was about building these interior spaces and imbuing them with the same sense of purpose and hope that I was doing in my artwork. On a bigger scale, that’s more approachable on a day to day basis. I spent a lot of my last couple of years designing adjustable high desks because it has this health and wellbeing thing in it. They’re ugly. Next thing you know, the pandemic hits. I just created my first home office adjustable high desks that don’t look like anything else on the market. We’re doing a Kickstarter here in the next month on that. I’m creating these partitions for people to be able to get back to the office that are algorithmic. You can log in, put in what you need the screen shape to be. We’re making it out of this economic material; they look like cardboard that’s aa type of plastic. You can wipe it down and it’s economical. Basically, we’re making a portal for people to be able to say, Hey, I need this partition as a temporary measure to be able to get back to work, and we’re still making it beautiful. It doesn’t look like a pizza plexiglass. The way the algorithm works it, it takes that size and makes it almost into a geodesic dome shape. People can get it, and clip it together. Then you have your aerosolization chamber that helps keep everybody safe as we do this thing of transitioning back for the next year. Between art and farming, there’s always something to do. With art, if somebody tells you, you can’t, it’s like catnip. I’m just trying to ignore the fact that 80% of all of my work for the last six months to six weeks ago was for hospitality. That just vanished for now. But, I can make a really beautiful home desk for an incredibly reasonable price built here with materials, sourced internationally. We can meet a price point of around almost a thousand dollars for a desk that’s gorgeous. That’s what we’re doing right now: just trying to keep people working and keep the businesses going.

Gino Borges:
What a beautiful story! Thanks, Matt. You have a strong sense of what a generational moment looks like. It’s a big window; it’s beyond you. And then, your stories about how you’re pivoting your architectural design company met the current moment of COVID-19 in terms of what the needs are while not leaving the beauty out of that.

Matthew Moore:
Thanks so much for taking the time to ask questions, and in these times, and checking in and seeing how we’re doing – appreciate it.