Local microgreens growing in demand

Less than two years after its first sale, demand for Lucky Leaf Gardens' locally grown, organic microgreens has crossed the state line.

Kate Brun, owner of the Harrisburg-based business, produces up to 60 pounds of microgreens per week. The tiny, robust superfood comes from vegetable and herb seedlings harvested before they grow their first set of true leaves.

Microgreens are just a part of the area's growing local food movement and are becoming more prevalent in markets and upscale restaurants.

"Recent demand has driven our growth, and we've expanded beyond Charlotte, which was our initial goal," said Brun, who recently added overnight shipping. "Our products are shipped throughout Cabarrus and Charlotte but also go to Myrtle Beach, the Outer Banks, Greenville, Missouri, and we've even had a call from someone in Montana."

In 2010, Brun started growing microgreens in the atrium of her home. Later she added a 400-square-foot greenhouse in her backyard. Last spring, she added a 1,600-square-foot, state-of-the-art greenhouse on a five-acre plot near Reedy Creek in Concord.

A couple of weeks ago, Brun's company became a vendor for Sysco, replacing the Miami firm that had provided microgreens to the Concord-based food service distribution facility.

"We're more expensive, but Sysco is looking to try and expand their local product line," said Brun, who sells about eight pounds of microgreens per week to Sysco but expects to reach 20 pounds per week.

Sysco representatives are pitching her products throughout the Piedmont, including restaurants in Asheville and the Biltmore Estate.

Her products also are some of the first to showcase the Cabarrus County Food Policy Council's newly released "Locally Grown" label, which promotes foods grown in the county.

But perhaps even more impressive, Brun has been contacted by Martha Stewart Living to be a source for a magazine article about how to grow microgreens.

"Somehow they found us and said, 'You're the expert to help us write this,' " said Brun.

Brun said her "functional garnish" also is big with chefs, some of whom use her product as the focus of an entire meal.

"Some chefs very specifically pick the products to use to bring a whole dish together," said Brun. "They enhance the flavor of anything, and they're just packed with nutrients. As far as a chef is concerned, it's like a bow on a present. You can wrap it in paper, and it'll still be good, but if you put a fancy bow on top, it becomes gorgeous."

Marc Jacksina is the executive chef at Halcyon, a "farmhouse chic" restaurant in the Mint Museum that pushes farm-to-fork-inspired dishes with Southern heritage ingredients.

He gets cured pork from Tennessee, venison and other game from Texas and vegetables and other products locally whenever possible.

"I like to buy from people whose hands I can shake," said Jacksina. "Anytime I want something special, she does it for me. For one of my past dishes, I needed a micro slaw, so she grew me micro cabbage, celery and carrot.

"She's very good at what she does. Her business acumen is smart. She doesn't harvest and hope. We demand premium ingredients, and she meets that demand."

Jacksina calls microgreens "the Bonsai tree of food." He said the versatile, tasty garnish goes well on a turkey sandwich or can be used as a salad.

"From my point of view, I can utilize every pound or ounce that I buy," said Jacksina. "It makes for a way prettier plate and makes everything a little more polished and refined.

"Microgreens add complimentary flavor," Jacksina said. "I buy at least six different varieties. For some dishes they are the main component, and for others they are garnish."

Lucky Leaf offers 40 types of organic microgreens, ranging from broccoli, clover and sunflower to carrot, popcorn, cilantro and arugula. Her products can be found at area farmer's markets, including the Piedmont Farmer's Market locations in Concord and Harrisburg, the Wallace tailgate market in Huntersville and at Atherton Mills in south Charlotte. It also partners with Go Local NC Farms.

"As much as it is my passion, my hobby, my fun, playtime - it's all of that, but in the end it's still a business, so I always have to be business-minded," said Brun. "We are at a point where we can work with who we want to work with rather than work with just who's paying us. And I love that."

She gets help with the financial side of things from her husband, Marc.

"He's the business angle and I'm the passion angle. So between the two of us we've come up with a proper method," said Brun. "I'm intimate with the product, he's intimate with the numbers, and the two of us create a good balance."