Inside Commercial Growing Boxes

Tarren Wolfe, Urban Cultivator | BCBusiness
Wolfe’s company Urban Cultivator Inc. has sold $8,000 commercial units to local restaurants and businesses, plus global names like Jamie Oliver’s Better Food Foundation and ABC’s Extreme Makeover.

Commercial growing boxes – familiar to hydroponic marijuana farmers – are a must-have kitchen gadget.

On a gentrified stretch of East Cordova Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, sandwiched between a pizzeria and a pasta place, is the bright green door to Living Produce Aisle. Walking through it and down some stairs I arrive in a basement filled with commercial growing boxes – items usually affiliated with hydroponic marijuana cultivation, but these are shinier than anything you’d see in police photos of busted grow ops. They’re also filled with greens of a different sort: wheatgrass, arugula, basil, lettuce, parsley, pea shoots and sprouts of all kinds.

I’m studying the inside of a unit filled with trays of broccoli sprouts when owner Tarren Wolfe runs in, dressed in a puffy orange Patagonia jacket over a blue and yellow checkered shirt. The technology on display at this location – part showroom for Wolfe’s Urban Cultivator Inc. units, part retail sales outlet for the trays of sprouts and microgreens the company also sells out of its larger warehouse and call centre location in nearby Surrey – was born some 12 years ago. Back then, Wolfe and some friends invented and brought to market a similar grow box meant for the cultivation of cannabis.

“How can lettuce possibly be more profitable than marijuana?” I venture, alluding to Wolfe’s other company, BC Northern Lights Enterprises Ltd., which he says still turns $2 million to $3 million a year in profits, mainly through sales of hydroponic grow boxes (priced between $2,250 and $3,300) to some of the 18 U.S. states where medicinal marijuana is legal.

“I’m proud of that business. It basically allowed us to make the moves we’re making now,” Wolfe says, before elaborating on his new focus: food plants. “Health nuts, foodies, that’s a way bigger market than weed lovers, right?”

The cheapest produce I find are sunflower and pea sprouts at $8 per 100-gram bag, but I’m not the target market. Walk-in produce sales at Living Produce Aisle are dwarfed by deals with restaurateurs who buy commercial units at $8,000 apiece to use in their kitchens or to simply park in plain view as a marketing play on freshness. Wolfe says he even trademarked the term “Zero-Mile Diet.”

Urban Cultivator users include Nicli Antica Pizzeria (just upstairs), Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel, the dining room at the Banff Centre, Jamie Oliver’s Better Food Foundation, ABC’s Extreme Makeover, Four Seasons hotel locations in Vancouver, Whistler and San Francisco, and Pear Tree in Burnaby.

Pear Tree chef and owner Scott Jaeger uses the unit to start all his tomato plants. He’ll also grow nasturtium tops, watercress, tiny radishes and pea shoots. “I want quite prissy, very delicate little things,” he says, laughing. “People can’t grow me that, put it in a plastic bag and then sell it to me by the pound.”

Wolfe says sales got a bump after his pitch on CBC’s Dragons’ Den last spring piqued the interest of venture capitalist Arlene Dickinson, who offered him $400,000 in services in exchange for a 20 per cent share in his company. That partnership got Wolfe thinking wholesale.

“We’re talking to condo developers now. We got our first full condo deal in Mongolia. Weird, right?” He has yet to close a similar deal with Canadian developers, but feels confident about ongoing talks in Toronto and projects $3 million to $5 million in sales for 2013.

Wolfe’s story fits a trend to move food production indoors. In December, Niagara-on-the-Lake-based vegetable giant St. David’s Hydroponics announced it was expanding one of its properties by 24 acres of greenhouses to keep up with demand for its eggplants and bell peppers. That’s a lot of ratatouille.