Want fresh wheat grass for your morning shake but don't feel like trundling down to the health food store? Or ever had a longing to grow your own arugula, with zero pesticides and a miniature carbon footprint? The Urban Cultivator, a dishwasher-sized indoor growing appliance, takes the guesswork out of the process, controlling the watering, light and temperature. It fits neatly under your counter, and allows even the least talented gardener to raise his own crops.
Tarren Wolfe, one of the partners in Urban Cultivator, is a true believer in eating local—as local as your own kitchen. So he put his own home up as collateral when he needed cash to launch his business. "I have everything on the line," Wolfe admits. "It's scary sometimes for sure. You get that feeling like, 'Oh God.'"
But the fear factor isn't enough to prevent this laid-back west coast hydroponic expert from launching into a soliloquy about the superior nutritional value of broccoli micros versus full-grown broccoli. "Some of these micros grow 8-10 inches in a week. They're as tasty as hell. Look how long it takes to get broccoli from a traditional farm. Look how much gas it takes for the tractor. With the Cultivator you can put out way more, way faster."
Media exposure has been a fertilizer for rapid growth at Urban Cultivator, but after almost two years on the market, Wolfe's not in the black yet. Even a deal with Arlene Dickinson on Dragons' Den didn't result in a cash infusion.
"That definitely would have helped," concedes Wolfe, but he believes the $400,000 of marketing services she offered instead will pay off in a much larger way. "The potential is limitless. I really envision these in every house. This is going to be like a TV or microwave — one of those standard household items."
With the number of orders that have been pouring in, his Cultivator appears to be on that path. A purchase order for 112-unit condo being built in Mongolia is just the tip of the international iceberg. Distributors from across Europe and the Middle East are calling. So are hotel chains like the Four Seasons. Chef and reality TV star Jamie Oliver's charitable foundation is using the Cultivator. Vancouver home-owners, many of whom first sampled the Cultivator's fresh micro-greens at Living Produce Aisle, Wolfe's new store in Vancouver, are snapping it up. And the appliance will appear on ABC's Extreme Makeover – Weight Loss Edition.
More orders are just what Wolfe needs to get to the point where his home is no longer at risk, but expansion brings its own set of hazards. "Our growth strategy has to be smart. The product has to work and work well."
Aware of the dangers of becoming too big, too fast, he refuses to outsource production of the appliance if it sacrifices quality. But as the order list grows, so does the delay for delivery. Currently the wait list is five weeks—not ideal for the company, or for consumers. But after years of having all his eggs in the Cultivator's basket, Wolfe is more zen than stressed, even when contemplating the worst case scenario. "If something were to happen, big deal—we move into a smaller house, and I slowly start paying back the loans. With everybody I've met through this experience, I feel confident that I have a skill set I can offer." Staying calm, he says, depends on "sort of talking yourself down and knowing that you always have options. It's only money. "
By YouInc Columnist Tiffany Burns