What is in this article?:
• 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.
• Marvin Wilhite's 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.
• Wilhite started in 2000 with one greenhouse. Now he has 21, all self-built and designed.
Marvin Wilhite’s 40-plus types of microgreens end up in 500-or-so restaurants across the nation.
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.”