By following the ancient Spice Trade route, Australian Ross Harding says one can see the evolution of the British Empire.
Now, with Verdant Kitchen, he and Savannah businessman Howard Morrison are creating their own spice route — but in reverse. They are growing and selling ginger and other exotic spices from Savannah, venturing out not only across the country but into Canada and the United Kingdom.
“If you look at the long history of ginger as it moved around the world, it is the history of England and the Dutch East Indies Trade — the spice routes,” he says. “It came out of China and was traded around the world, spread to Jamaica and eventually Central America. There are even records of it being in Savannah in 1750. We decided to grow it in Savannah and blow it out into a product line of healthy and delicious products.”
Four years later, Verdant Kitchen has a growing line of beverages, baked goods, candies, snacks and spices, growing seven varieties of ginger originally from China, India, Peru and Hawaii. After selling to local restaurants and farmer’s markets, the company has moved its sales operations and primary kitchen to Duluth as it expands nationwide.
Verdant Kitchens employs about 20 people and had doubled in revenues every year. projecting continue for at least the next five years.
Mr. Harding says there is a huge market nationally for Verdant to conquer but its entry to exporting came organically.
“Savannah is a wonderful place and attracts something like 14 million people and it’s a foodie town,” he says. “We ended up having a lot of Canadians coming to Savannah and buying our products. Then they’d go back home and call us wanting more. We have orders from all over Canada — Vancouver to the Maritimes. We have people wanting our ginger tea and others wanting our ginger for sea sickness on the fishing boats.”
In addition to a growing Canadian market, the team has its eye on Europe, particularly the U.K.
“The U.K. is a ginger-loving country and there are a lot of markets there for products like ours — high quality gourmet and wellness foods. We’ve started having conversations and we’re pretty comfortable going into the market. We’ll start some exploratory trips and have conversations with some high-end retailers.”
Mr. Harding came to Savannah because his daughter attended Savannah College of Art & Design, and he noticed that Savannah had a climate and the sandy soils were similar to those in the sub tropical parts of Australia where ginger was grown. It is known for being a remedy for nausea, aiding digestion and acting as an anti-inflammatory. A light-bulb went off: Could ginger be grown in Georgia?
A representative from the Georgia Department of Economic Development introduced him to Mr. Morrison, who had an interest in agriculture projects. Mr. Morrison lives near and owns Lebanon Plantation, which was acquired in 1916 by his grandfather, former C&S National Bank executive Mills B. Lane. They decided to grow the spice as well as galangal and turmeric at Lebanon Plantation. Parts of the plantation were certified as organic farms, and one of the early 1990s cabins was converted into a USDA-certified organic processing facility.
“We started about four years ago as a concept about agri-tourism and my partner and I looked at various options. Our conclusion was to build a branded product line around healthful and delicious products that we can grow locally. After research we came up with key spices, all from the ginger family,” Mr. Harding says.
The pair had a lot of help from the state getting things up and running.
“Everyone was tremendously helpful, especially [state Agriculture Commissioner] Gary Black. They have been a wonderful resource for us and we continue to learn from them as well as the other Georgia organizations. Everyone has been helpful from the set up of the business through today,” Mr. Harding said.
The team had a more practical conversation with the University of Georgia.
“We wanted to know if the deer would eat our ginger plants,” he said. “Turns out the entire ginger plant is not edible but if you brush up against it you get a wonderful smell on you that is its natural defense mechanism. Deer don’t like it.”
Visit www.verdantkitchen.com for more information.