By Roy L Hales
The problem with buying greens in a supermarket is that they usually lost half of their nutrients within a day of being cut. As anyone with a garden knows, freshness translates into taste. A Vancouver company brings this freshness into kitchens. North America’s #1 Urban Cultivator gives restaurants and homeowners an opportunity to grow micro-greens and herbs year round.
“You open the door and small the freshness,” said Eric Sloan, President of Urban Cultivator.
Argula, basil, beet tops, broccoli, buckwheat, cabbage. chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fenugreek, flax, kale, komatsuna, lemon balm, lentils, lettuces, marjoram, mizuna, mint, mustard, nasturtium, oregano, parsley, pea tendrils, peppergrass, peppermint, purple radish, radish, sage, savory, shiso, spearmint, sorrel, sunflower, swiss chard, tatsol, thyme and wheatgrass are some of the green commonly grown.
Most of America’s produce travels thousands of miles before reaching the local supermarket. That leaves a significant carbon footprint, which can be reduced by growing food right in your kitchen.
The Urban Cultivator’s commercial unit costs $8,800, and the residential unit is $2,499. These prices include shipping to anywhere in North America.
Though the initial outlay is significant, the greens are said to cost 80 to 95% less than ordering from a supplier.
“The average cost of growing a 10×20 flat of greens in the commercial unit is $3.50. Often it costs $20 – $45 to purchase that same flat from a supplier,” said Sloan.
According to company data, a restaurant can recoup their investment in as little as a year and a half.
“For residential purposes, it’s difficult to say what the repayment time is (mostly because consumers don’t eat very many live greens currently), but I would wager a guess that it is more like 2-3 years depending on what you’re growing,” said Sloan.
Tarren Wolfe founded the company in 2010. His wife’s allergies provided the inspiration. She cannot eat most commercial produce because of the pesticides they contain. The solution was to grow food in your kitchen.
He had been involved in industrial scale hydroponics for several years at that point.
“When we founded Urban Cultivator, we wanted to take the experience we had from hydroponics into a company that provides food for regular people,” Sloan said.
They marketed their commercial unit first.
“Chefs purchase live flats on a regular basis,” Sloan explained. “The Lower Mainland provider of that would be Barnston Island. They are already purchasing these 10 by 20 flats of micro-greens and herbs. So what we were able to is produce a means that allows the chef to grow those flats themselves.”
“I go to the Farmer’s Market twice a week; I know the fishermen that catch my fish; I know the ranchers that raise my cattle… We can now grow herbs ourselves: shoots, sprouts, seedings, I could not imagine not having it anymore because it is just so extraordinary,” said Chef Ned Bell, Executive Chef of Four Seasons Vancouver.
(Click on this link to access a video where some of Vancouver’s Chef’s talking about the Urban Cultivator)
A number of pita stores and sandwich shops have also bought in.
“If your growing beet tops and radish sprouts and things like this it is a very unique flavor that other sandwich shops who aren’t using something like this won’t be able to reproduce,” explained Sloan.
Three months after launching, Urban Cultivator was on Dragons Den.
“It was a great reflective process for us,” Sloan said about the audition and other preliminaries leading up to their appearance on the show.
Three of the Dragons bid for their business. Urban Cultivator decided to go with Arlene Dickenson, who offered $400,000 of marketing services for 20% of the booming business.
Dickensen is actively involved with the company. She recently did a Chef’s event in Toronto, and Sloan mentioned talking to her team a couple of weeks prior to this interview.
Martha Stewart fell in love with the Urban Cultivator at a trade show in Toronto. Now she has a commercial unit in her office and a residential unit at home.
About 40 teachers attended a presentation at the University of British Columbia and a number of high schools have adopted the urban cultivator.
“They use it for their culinary program but they also use it to teach kids where food comes from, where its grown and the entire process” said Sloan.
There are now roughly twice as many residential as commercial sales.
Sloan uses one at home “almost every night.”
“I grow a variety of different things and they all come up at different times. If you are growing basil, for example, it is going to take about four weeks to actually grow that flat, but once its grown it coms back in a matter of just days. That goes for bail, for kale and other greens like that,” he said. “It produces a lot of food and adds a lot of freshness to every meal.”
Around 70% of the Urban Cultivator’s sales are in North America, split between the US and Canada.
They have branched into Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain, the Middle East, Australia and may soon reach China.
Their manufacturing center, in Surrey, BC, employs 28 people.
They are opening a “Living Produce Aisle” 1168 Hamilton street, Yaletown, in Vancouver. They intend to franchise that, so that Living Produce Aisles can open across North America.
“In that location we’re not only showcasing the machines and what they can do, we’re going to be selling the actual greens as well. If someone wants to start out by just purchasing micro-greens, they can experience the flavor and nutritional benefits of the micro-greens.”
They intend to franchise the Living Produce Aisles and are already talking to companies interested in opening one in other North American locations.
The Urban Cultivator is not the only way to obtain fresh mirco-greens, nor is it the cheapest. Many North Americans are now growing pesticide free food in their homes.
The Urban Cultivator is probably the only North American company that offers a complete package for growing micro-greens and herbs in your kitchen.
“We have a great story, it goes back to providing fresh and clean food to anyone who wants to grow it,” Sloan says. “People want to have fresh food, they want to know what went into it. They don’t want to purchase food that has come from some other country or come 2,000 miles just to reach their plate. That’s why the Farmer’s Market industry is growing at such an incredible pace. This is just an extension of that. We want to create fresh and healthy food and make it accessible to anyone.”
(Photo at top of page: (l to r) Eric Sloan, President of Urban Cultivator; Chef Ned Bell, Executive Chef of Four Seasons Vancouver; Tarren Wolfe, Founder of the Urban Cultivator)