A growing trend
An Ocean Park business owner has transformed his company's hydroponic technology to appease an appetite for a different kind of green.
Tarren Wolfe, owner of Urban Cultivator, has taken the company in a new direction from being one of B.C.'s go-to suppliers of marijuana-growing equipment to stocking up the province's most posh restaurants with micro-greens, arugula and other lettuces.
"We had been making a similar line for about 12 years and then a couple of years ago we decided to do one that would be more geared towards micro-greens and classic herbs," he said.
And while his BC Northern Lights company – winner of High Times' Stash Award – is one that may raise a few eyebrows, Wolfe explains that like any business-savvy entrepreneur, he and his partners satiated a growing need in the market.
"Growing up in Kelowna, we knew people who were growing it and we knew there was a market that needed to be filled," he said. "It's legal in 18 states and it's legal here, as well."
Still, adjusting the focus to Urban Cultivator's more family-friendly purpose was an easy decision for Wolfe – and his wife – he admits.
"She cringes every time she reads about the other business," he said.
Using the technology from his previous venture, Wolfe and his business partners created Urban Cultivator's computer-controlled hydroponic growing system at a time when demand for local, organic ingredients is at an all-time high.
The products, including seeds and a how-to guide, come in two sizes – one for commercial use and the other for residential use – and is meant to just "set it and forget."
In Metro Vancouver alone, the company has sold products to some of the region's top restaurants, including Burnaby's Pear Tree, C in Vancouver and restaurants in the Four Season hotel chain, including Yew in Vancouver and Sidecut in Whistler – which was the company's first customer.
"Chef Tory was our first customer and a real pioneer, it's been a real blessing to have a first customer like that," said Wolfe, about Sidecut's head chef. "We were looking for the people who obviously wanted to use it, and there are many."
The increasing demand is a point that was not lost on the business moguls who make up the panel of CBC's entrepreneurial reality show, Dragon's Den.
While presenting the product on the episode that aired Jan. 25, three of the panel members quickly made offers to swap services for a portion of the business.
But it was marketing maven Arlene Dickinson who sealed the deal with an exchange of 20 per cent of the company for $400,000, after the other two rescinded their offers.
Although the help of Dickinson will be a huge boost to the company, just being on the show was enough to raise their status, Wolfe said.
"We got a lot of free eyeballs. There are two million viewers who watch that show a night, so it's awesome marketing," he said.
In fact, Wolfe says he has been approached by four teachers applying for grants to have the equipment as teachers'-aid products.
"With their help we're producing a curriculum and pitching to the school boards," said Wolfe. "It will teach kids basically how to grow and give them the basic knowledge."
If all goes well, Wolfe says he believes that herbs and greens grown by schools will generate revenue, which can then be put back into the classroom.
Although Wolfe says the company's goal is to go global – they have received offers and inquiries from more than 40 different countries – there are still big plans for right here in Metro Vancouver.
The company will be opening up the first living-produce aisle sometime in March, in downtown Vancouver's Nicli Antica Pizzeria – which goes through $2,000 worth of basil and arugula a month – exchanging four of the commercial-sized cultivators for the space.
"It will get people to come in and they can see the produce right in front of them," Wolfe said.