Small is not only beautiful — IT’S also profitablein Marvin Wilhite’s world. He grows hydroponic microgreens in 4,000 square foot greenhouses at Odessa, Fla., north of Tampa, and his company, the quirkily named Cahaba Clubs Herbal Outpost, sells the vegetable sprouts to more than 500 restaurants around the nation.
“Like just about everyone, the economic downturn hurt us,” he says, “but you can buy our products in Denver, New York, Atlanta, the Cayman Islands, at Disney World, on cruise lines, in a lot of places. The interest among chefs is definitely there.”
Both harvest and planting of the company’s more than 40 microgreens goes on 365 days a year, with twice-daily deliveries to the airport for shipping to distributors.
“As anyone who has dealt with chefs knows, they can be extremely demanding, and we are a chef-driven company,” Wilhite says. ‘We guarantee our product.
“You’re only as good as your last delivery in this business, so we put the chef first and ourselves second. The chef is always right, as far as we’re concerned. If the chef is unhappy with something, we replace it immediately.
“Ten years ago, a chef might throw microgreens on a plate to make it look pretty. Now, all the varieties we grow have a specific application for a specific dish. Chefs come here to visit pretty often — they want to see where the product is coming from. Our distributors bring busloads by here.”
Wilhite started in 2000 with one greenhouse. Now he has 21, all self-built and designed.
“We bend our own pipes; we make our hoops. Greenhouse parts are fencing parts, really, but if you buy them as greenhouse parts, they’re a lot more expensive. We have a big generator that can run everything — the greenhouses, the cooler, the office, all of it — because temperature problems can cause trouble in a hurry with microgreens.
“We use simple fans and old analog equipment. Instead of moisture sensors, I use my finger. The greenhouses are designed so they can be pushed down by wind. When there’s a hurricane, they just drop.
“There’s 200 pounds of concrete around each pole; there are two layers of plastic. When the hurricanes hit several years ago, we lost some of the top layer of plastic, but that was all.”
Other hurricane-related problems
But, other problems associated with the worst storm did affect the business.
“We went nine days without power and lost everything,” Wilhite says. “Sales went from $120,000 a month to nothing. But we were still fortunate. Within 30 days we were back running at 100 percent of revenue.”
Even with the risk of hurricanes, he still thinks his location is ideal.
“I have access to Atlanta, Orlando, Miami. With the trend to local, regional, sustainable products, that’s important, and I’m going to the upscale restaurants.
“It’s tougher to grow microgreens here than in California, because they don’t deal with the humidity we have. Moisture just ruins the shelf life of produce.”
Wilhite grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., son of a landscaper, and worked in other jobs for years, including a career in financing. While doing that, he met a fellow who had a deal to grow hydroponic herbs for Disney World restaurants. That entrepreneur was poorly financed, however, so Wilhite bought land, leased it to him, and went to work as the company’s sales director.
A venture capitalist bought the company, but soon ran into problems. Wilhite got it from him and started selling herbs to local restaurants, before discovering chefs’ growing interest in microgreens.
“Chefs are always looking at trends and ideas for new products to grow their business. If you create something with a chef, you’re a partner with him. That’s the secret to longevity,” he says.
“I built this business one chef at a time, one distributor rep at a time. Once I got started with microgreens, I just fell in love with the business.”
Wilhite’s biggest selling product these days is a ‘rainbow’ mixture of artfully arranged arugula, beef bulls blood, red mustard, red cabbage, purple kohlrabi and mizuna mustard.
He packages a number of microgreen mixes. An Asian mix, for example, contains cilantro, daikon radish tokashini, mizuna mustard, red cabbage, red mustard, shiso and tatsoi.
He sells a ‘fiery mix,’ with calienete wasabi, red mustard, green horseradish, and diakon radish. He packages several other mixes for different taste experiences.
His product line includes many microgreens packaged individually, ranging from red amaranth to micro broccoli, onion, thyme, snow peas and chervil, all the way through red and green oak leaf and nasturtium flowers.
“All I have to do is have a distributor salesperson show my product — the product sells itself,” Wilhite says.
In addition, trays of living microgreens are also popular items. Stored above 42 degrees, living trays have a shelf life of at least three weeks.
Going for flavor
“I’m going for a lot of flavor, whatever I’m growing. I want a kind of flavor explosion in the mouth,” Wilhite explains, sampling micro onions, thyme, rosemary and amaranth and other microgreens as he walks through greenhouses.
“Flavor all comes from nutrients in the soil. If it grows in mineral-depleted soil, there’s no flavor.”
Wilhite’s microgreens don’tgrowin soil at all, but in perlite — which technically is a volcanic glass — and water. The nutrients get to the plants constantly in solution with the water.
“Water soluble fertilizer is immediate gratification for the plant,” he says. “It doesn’t have to break down the fertilizer.That’s the premise. People wonder how we get so much flavor out of something so small. That’s how — you can do it if you grow it right.”
During the proper growing season, he continues that push for taste by growing more traditional crops in hydroponic greenhouses, including heirloom tomatoes.
“That’s been pretty good for us,” he says. “We used to grow a lot of lettuce that way, but we don’t grow lettuce any more. We grow what’s most profitable.”
Color is his latest fascination. He grows pea shoots in four 1,000 square foot black rooms. Without light, the shoots are white. They’re transferred to a regular greenhouse to “green up” for three days, then marketed.
“Chefs want something new and different, and color is the new thing. We’re looking at doing some interesting things with light to produce different colored microgreens. It has a lot of potential.”
Staying on top of trendsis important, not only to Wilhite, but also to his 16 employees. He’s free to look at big-picture options, he says, because Patty Whitehead, his office manager, takes care of day-to-day routine company duties, such as payroll.
Wilhite is used to fielding questions about the company’s name. To him, the name makes perfect sense.
Years ago, he and his father bought land along the Cahaba River in Alabama. It was mostly in the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, and they made money off hunting leases. They called their company Cahaba Clubs, Inc.
When he started the Odessa business, he did it under the same corporate umbrella, calling it an herbal outpost because, at the time, herbs made up a big part of sales.
Today, business is still not back to its pre-recession level, but has shown considerable improvement over the past few months.
“In 2008, I could do more sales with fewer customers. Now we’re working harder and making less money. In 2008, things were so good that we sold everything we had. That was the last time that happened.
“But August was the first big monthly increase we’ve had in four years, and this year revenue is up 12 percent, so things are looking better.”