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BIS Entrepreneurial business of the year: Verdant Kitchen

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Verdant Kitchen hits the big time

  • Savannah Morning News file photo Howard J. Morrison and Ross Harding partnered to form Verdant Kitchen, a certified USDA Organic farm and processing facility in Savannah. The ginger and turmeric harvested are used in different products from ground ginger to honey-infused ginger.

What a year it has been for Verdant Kitchen.

The gourmet health and wellness company, borne of a collaboration between Savannah businessman Howard Morrison and global energy consultant Ross Harding, features products made of ginger and other organic foods grown at Morrison’s historic Lebanon Plantation in Savannah.

“Howard and I have enjoyed several consulting collaborations, but we wanted to try something different,” Harding said in an earlier interview. “One day we were talking about super foods and how we need to eat more healthfully, especially as we grow older. We wondered if there might be some healthy food products we could develop that other people would enjoy as well.”

From that conversation in 2011, the two embarked on more than two years of behind-the-scenes experimentation and study.

“We did it all quietly,” Harding said. “Howard has Lebanon Plantation with its wonderful history as an early agricultural center, so we started looking at what we might grow there.”

The pair learned that Savannah’s soil was perfect for growing ginger, a booming business in Harding’s native Australia. With their product in mind, they worked with the University of Georgia and private individuals, airfreighted organic ginger from Hawaii, had parts of Lebanon Plantation certified as organic farms by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and converted one of the plantation’s early 1900s cabins into a USDA-certified organic processing facility.

They started growing ginger crops, including turmeric and galangal — also known as Thai ginger — and making them into beverages, baked goods, candies, snacks and spices.

 

Coming together

 

By mid- 2013, Verdant Kitchen had developed a product line, with test-marketing underway.

By early 2014, Harding was sampling the products in regional farmers markets.

“That’s good exposure and instant feedback,” he said. “You can reach thousands of people and watch their faces as they try your products.”

The company still attends about a dozen farmers markets a week, from high-end markets to those catering to tourists or families, Harding said.

“It’s a wonderful marketing lab.”

Farmers markets also tend to attract store owners, Harding said, and many of them took note of the new kid on the block.

“By the start of 2015, we had begun wholesaling around the region to dozens of gourmet specialty stores,” he said.

The first half of this year was focused on farmers markets and wholesaling, Harding said.

“We were really just getting started with developing our internet sales at that point.”

Then along came Oprah.

 

The big time

In a turn of events that Harding said was at once thrilling and terrifying, Verdant Kitchen’s gift set of Ginger Infused Honey and Ginger Syrup found its way into the 2015 edition of Oprah Winfrey’s “Favorite Things” for gifting and getting this holiday season.

“This is amazing,” Winfrey told her readers. “Get the healthful benefits of ginger in the form of a luscious honey (to stir into tea) or a zingy organic syrup (the cocktail possibilities are endless), both made in Georgia.”

The eagerly awaited list, announced in early November by “O,” Amazon and “People” magazine simultaneously, “absolutely slammed us with orders,” Harding said, adding that the company worked nonstop to stay up with the requests.

“We really had to ramp up to get it all done — and we’re still getting orders,” he said last week.

“It was scary — 10 weeks ago, we didn’t even have a presence on Amazon.

“But now we know what we can do.”

Although sometimes it still seems like a dream.

“If you had told us 24 months ago that a Verdant Kitchen product would be included in one of the most prestigious, curated holiday lists in the world — there is no way we would have imagined it,” Harding said.

 

Looking ahead

Today, Verdant Kitchen has a newly designed website, a full-fledged presence on Amazon and products in some 500 to 600 retail stores across the country.

And it’s still front and center in farmers markets from Savannah to Atlanta and beyond.

So what’s next for Verdant Kitchen?

“We will continue to develop our internet market, with a focus on the wellness side of the business,” Harding said. “Ginger and turmeric truly are super foods and we haven’t taken our eyes off our original premise.

“There is nothing like having someone come up and say ‘Your products have made a difference in my life.’

“Nothing could be more satisfying.”

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ABOUT THE SERIES

As 2015 comes to a close, the Savannah Morning News, Business in Savannah and savannahnow.com continue the tradition of profiling companies and organizations that made major contributions to the local business environment during the past year.

The Business in Savannah staff chose the honorees from a list of nominees submitted by local business and community members, utilizing broad criteria — from growth and success to philanthropy and community involvement.

Thursday: Newcomer of the year

Friday: Manufacturer of the year

Saturday: Business advocate of the year

Today: Entrepreneurial business of the year

Tuesday: Retail business of the year

Wednesday: Small business of the year

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