Inside an aging brick building of Canal Place in downtown Akron, just a short trip up a freight elevator that used to move tires from floor to floor for the B.F. Goodrich Co., a garden is in full bloom.
Behind the door marked Suite 442, there are growing beds stacked five feet high with flats of microgreens that soon will be on their way to the tables of some of the area’s finest restaurants.
This is Chef Grown, a fledgling business opened by chef Torsten Schulz and his wife, Marie.
Schulz, 37, a native of Germany, spends his days planting beds of garnet amaranth, mustard greens, basil, chard, cabbage, arugula, cilantro and a variety of other vegetables, grains and herbs.
His nights are spent in the kitchen at dba, the Furnace Street restaurant of Cleveland chef Dante Boccuzzi, where Schulz is executive chef.
What most growers would see as seedlings, ready for transplanting, Schulz sees as microgreens ready for harvest. His product is freshly harvested about every 16 days. That’s how long it takes, on average, for the greens to sprout from their seeds and grow to the 1- or 2-inch size preferred by chefs.
Microgreens are popular for herbs, but also for plants like peas and sunflowers, not normally harvested for their shoots.
In restaurants, chefs use microgreens in salads, on sandwiches and for garnishing entrees with an added burst of flavor and color.
Schulz discovered microgreens when he first began working as a chef in 1996. By 2002, he was working at Charlie Palmer Steak in the Four Seasons Resort in Las Vegas and buying the greens from a local farmer. He was so excited by their quality, taste and freshness that “I said I wanted to grow these,” he recalled.
By the time he left Las Vegas, Schulz was supplying microgreens to 16 restaurants, and later grew them in Florida, where he met and married Marie seven years ago.
Since then, the couple has hopscotched around the globe, where Schulz has worked at restaurants in Beverly Hills, Germany, Spain and Portugal, where he cooked at the Michelin-starred Sao Gabriel in Farro.
Since moving to Ohio a year ago to open dba for Boccuzzi, Schulz knew he wanted to get his growing business up and running again and it didn’t take him long to find the space. His 1,600 square feet is about half filled with beds and growing lamps, and Canal Place offers him plenty of space for expansion. There’s a suite next door with another 3,800 square feet that he’s already got his eye on.
Schulz buys untreated seeds and operates with no chemicals, growing a mix of herbs, greens, lettuces and other grains and vegetables.
Chef Grown greens are used at dba, and also at Boccuzzi’s three other Cleveland-area restaurants. Crave in Akron and Bistro on Main in Kent have used greens from Chef Grown, too.
In addition to restaurants, however, home cooks are discovering the large flavor that comes in these miniature shoots.
The West Point Market stocks the greens and Marie, 36, has been at the store offering customers samples so they can taste the big flavor of these tiny shoots. The store sells clamshell boxes of the microgreens for $3 to $3.50.
Dave Lukens, produce manager for West Point, said the market has been stocking the greens for more than four months and they are getting popular with customers, particularly the basil and chives. Customers also like the micro-mustard greens for their mustard flavor on sandwiches and the arugula for salads.
“It is really cool and exceptional quality,” he said of the product.
Customers who have had a chance to sample the greens when Marie is in the store demonstrating, are the ones who typically become fans, he said. “When they try them, they definitely buy them.”
He said the term “microgreens” is used mainly by chefs in restaurants, but more adventurous home cooks and those who notice these types of ingredients on television cooking shows are eager to buy them.
Lukens said he was impressed with Schulz’s growing operation when he visited.
From a grocery perspective, Lukens said there are very few suppliers of microgreens in the country and all of the others would require at least overnight shipping. To have a local grower means the product is often at his store the day it is picked and will remain fresher on his shelves longer.
Schulz said growing indoors with grow lights, he is able to produce a consistent product every day of the year regardless of weather, which is bonus for chefs who are looking for sources for ingredients.
It may not be long before more than just chefs are looking to include microgreens in their diet.
A 2012 study reported in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry by researchers at the University of Maryland College Park showed that microgreens may be small, but they pack a nutritional wallop. The study showed that microgreens have 4 to 40 times the concentration of nutrients as their full-grown counterparts.
For chefs, Schulz said working with microgreens eliminates the step of having to chop, so baby basil, for example, isn’t cut and turning black, but stays green and fresh on the plate.
Schulz said growing his own product benefits him as a chef as well.
“It helps me to be creative,” he said, looking over the brightly colored flats of shoots.
Often a microgreen will inspire an entire dish, he said, pointing out a flat of chard shoots and imagining how they could become the fresh garnish on top of a platter of braised full-grown chard.
“How gorgeous is that?” he said.