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.”