The 100-mile diet twigged Canadians to the benefits of eating locally. But Tarren Wolfe of Surrey, B.C., is bringing the go-local movement even closer to home – right inside it, in fact. With his company, the Urban Cultivator, he has developed an appliance that allows for easy indoor growing of herbs and small greens, and he envisions people around the globe snipping their own cilantro and tossing home-grown salads.
Call it the zero-mile diet.
Inside the Yew Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, Mr. Wolfe opens the smoked-glass door to a dishwasher-size cultivator that sits next to one of the chefs’ stations in plain view of diners. Inside is a rotating crop that on this occasion includes radish sprouts, broccoli greens, arugula and pea tendrils, which the cooks use as garnishes or in salads and side dishes.
The bright green garden catches people’s eyes and, topped with a maple butcher block, it’s the kind of appliance that the Real Housewives of Vancouver might salivate over.
“The goal is to help people be sustainable and self-sufficient,” Mr. Wolfe says. “This is the way our food production is going. We can’t keep going the other way, with that huge carbon footprint. This is not a fad.”
Apparently, a passing trend the cultivator is not. Mr. Wolfe appeared on Dragon’s Den last May and scored a deal with Arlene Dickinson, owner of Venture Communications, giving her a 20-per-cent equity stake in exchange for $400,000 worth of marketing services.
Yew executive chef Ned Bell was keen on bringing in a cultivator because the concept fits with the restaurant’s “from farm to table” philosophy. (The Four Seasons has a larger, commercial unit in its back kitchen plus its dining-room showpiece.)
“I grew up on a farm, and my dad was the first hydroponic tomato farmer in the Okanagan,” Mr. Bell says. “That DIY attitude is in my blood. Even before it became fashionable I always had to know where my food came from. ... Now I get to grow exactly what I want.”
Cooks like to see the plants growing, he says, and it gives diners an authentic experience. “When people walk by it, it sparks interest and questions, and maybe people will take that home and start to think about what they can do themselves to be sustainable.”
In addition to Yew and the Four Seasons Resort Whistler, other B.C. restaurants using the commercial version of the cultivator include C, the Pear Tree, and Nicli Antica Pizzeria. Mr. Wolfe is in talks with restaurants and food chains across Canada and the United States as well as home-supply stores.
He’s had interest from as far away as Mongolia, where the developer of a 112-unit condominium wants to put the cultivators in every suite, and the Middle East, where growing greens is difficult and food imports are heavily taxed.
The target demographic is huge: Besides restaurant chefs, the cultivator appeals to those who are environmentally and health conscious. Increasingly, consumers want to know exactly where their food comes from and would prefer their lettuce leaves not be doused with pesticides and herbicides.
The cultivator’s roots go back 12 years, when Mr. Wolfe and two friends from his hometown of Kelowna, B.C., started a company that made equipment to grow medicinal marijuana. One had a background in manufacturing, the other had experience in information technology, and the three devised a hydroponic, automated box.
From there they tried growing basil, mint and parsley, and it evolved into the technologically sophisticated, user-friendly unit that Mr. Wolfe’s company sells today. (Mr. Wolfe, who studied graphic design and painting at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, bought out his friends a few years ago.)
The cultivator can be plumbed in and hooked up electrically like a dishwasher and automatically controls light, humidity, temperature and watering cycles. Smaller residential units called the Kitchen Cultivator start at $2,200, while the larger ones, called Commercial Cultivators, go for $6,000.
Once seeds are planted, fresh greens are ready to use within days. The company plans to design solar-powered appliances, too. “It would be nice if we could be totally off the grid,” Mr. Wolfe says. “Our aim is ‘grow your own,’ whether it’s tomatoes or micro greens, 365 days a year.”
Annual sales total about $3.5-million. Mr. Wolfe has 26 employees, including 10 people who offer technical support by phone or live chat 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Other opportunities have come up recently for Mr. Wolfe, a 38-year-old father of two young children. Kitchen Cultivators will be appearing in episodes of Chopped on the Food Network as well as on Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition, in which people battling obesity find ways to live a healthier lifestyle. Even the Jamie Oliver Foundation has endorsed the product.
One of the biggest challenges Mr. Wolfe faces now is boosting production without sacrificing quality. To date the company has been making between 1,000 and 1,500 units a year in Surrey, but if interest keeps growing, it might need to find an affordable, reliable source for greater output.
In the meantime, he has high hopes for the role his company could play in helping people go green, literally.
“More people are asking, ‘What can I do to reduce my carbon footprint?’” he says. “This is about planting a seed.”
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