A fresh perspective

Local start-up aims to put farm-fresh food in hands of communities

Posted on Jun 1, 2016 :: Small Business Spotlight
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

It’s a phrase heard often that not all superheroes wear capes.

For Alex Fehrenbach and his business partners Calvin Anderson and Steve Catlin, their attire might include jeans, work boots and a T-shirt. The trio of friends came into the public eye to “figure out how to save the world” and in 2011, they started Grow Local to do just that.

Located in a 2,000-square-foot greenhouse on an urban farm in Neenah, Grow Local is a sustainable farm that distributes fresh produce such as mushrooms, microgreens, herbs and other vegetables to Northeast Wisconsin restaurants and consumers.

The Grow Local partners pride themselves for not using inorganic chemicals on its products and are not shy to say that every product they offer is “poison free.”

“We basically don’t put anything on the product that we wouldn’t want to eat ourselves or feed to our families,” Fehrenbach says.

The first business plan for the trio of entrepreneurs was to grow lettuce and they learned very quickly that the business could not survive on just one product. Because they operate in a small space, the company had to optimize the types of products it grows in order to generate more revenue.

“We knew we had to adapt, so we picked up new revenue streams and new product lines like microgreens and mushrooms,” Fehrenbach says. “These kind of products have allowed us to get more revenue per square foot so we learned how to adapt with a very small square footage which really lends itself well for being in an urban environment.”

About 70 percent of the company’s revenue comes from restaurants, which buy and use produce from Grow Local for meal preparation. One area of the business that Fehrenbach says the company is excited to see grow is selling directly to the consumer via a farm-to-fork grocer or delivery service.

“We love dealing with restaurants and the chefs because they take the quality of the product and elevate it even farther,” Fehrenbach says. “We also offer a farm fresh box where you go online, pick the type of products you want, and you get that box each week delivered to a restaurant or business in your neighborhood, or you can get it delivered to your front door.”

To accommodate its recent growth, the company recently opened a new 7,000 square-foot facility in the Bayview neighborhood of Milwaukee where the company will grow different types of mushrooms and when at full capacity, the facility could grow 2,000 pounds weekly.

Since 2011, sales have nearly doubled each year and the new facility will help bring in four times more production than last year.

“The potential for that facility is $1 million-plus annually in revenue, which is a big deal for 7,000 square feet of agricultural space,” Fehrenbach says. “In fact, it’s pretty much unheard of and is 80 times more effective than field cropping.”

As the region becomes more educated about the benefits of eating locally grown and fresh foods, Fehrenbach says there will be increased demand for products and services like Grow Local.

For example, companies such as The Wellness Way work with individuals on changing their lifestyles to restore wellness, which includes educating them on healthy eating. The company’s Appleton clinic is teaming up with Grow Local by offering its building as a pick-up location for customers who order produce from Grow Local.

“The trend towards healthy eating and healthy living in Appleton is a little more advanced than in some areas,” says Dr. Zach Papendieck, owner of The Wellness Way in Appleton. “A lot of people are trying to avoid chemicals and pesticides that are added to some foods and one thing Grow Local prides themselves on is being poison free.”

When faced with the opportunity to change to healthier eating, some fear that healthy eating is too expensive.

Papendieck says when he is faced with questions surrounding the price of healthy eating, he explains why food is priced the way it is.

“You need to question why the food that is in the grocery store is so cheap,” Papendieck says. “When it comes to cost, you are buying your health. I always say it is cheaper to eat healthy than to pay for surgery that was maybe caused by eating unhealthy.”

Even though Grow Local wants to stay close to its roots in Northeast Wisconsin, the possibility of creating hubs across the state and nation certainly fits the vision of the owners. Winter weather will not influence them to relocate, however.

“I can’t say enough about the Fox Valley and the strong friendships and business relationships here,” Fehrenbach says. “This will always be the place that helped us get a foot up and winter doesn’t stop us. We can’t just ship in produce from Mexico and California because we don’t think it’s sustainable or best for the product, the customer or the farmer.”