In the face of formidable challenges, Tasman Bay Herbs today supplies 30 different varieties of culinary herbs and salad green to supermarkets across New Zealand.
From a random encounter with a book on hydroponics 13 years ago, Don Grant and his then wife, Yoka De Houwer, went from 375 square metres of glasshouse in New Zealand’s Riwaka’s Dehra Doon valley to about 5000sqm growing fresh herbs hydroponically – under the banner of Tasman Bay Herbs – for supermarkets from Auckland to Queenstown.
“Yoka loved to cook but couldn’t buy fresh herbs in any supermarkets,” Don said.
“We discovered a demand from restaurants for fresh herbs so bought two hectares at Riwaka, 7km from Motueka and built a small 375sqm greenhouse to grow culinary herbs.”
These days Tasman Bay Herbs produces some of the freshest, most in-demand herbs in the country, however, their path to success has not been without its challenges.
Although not formally trained in business, they did have a passion to learn.
“We enrolled in a two-week seminar in Nelson to learn how to run a small business,” said Don.
“One day at lunch time Yoka saw a book on hydroponics. We were hooked on growing that way immediately. No weeds, no bending down, faster production, clean produce. We didn’t know anything about hydroponics and it has been quite a journey.”
“The vision at the start was to supply local Nelson restaurants. Yoka was quite happy with this while I immediately wanted to get larger and supply restaurants all over NZ.”
From the start, the idea behind Tasman Bay Herbs was to be the best, the freshest, and the most innovative in the market.
“We launched into retail in March 1997 at New World Motueka, and that same year we were the first company in New Zealand to have salad in bags. We were also the first to supply them in breathable bags, which keeps the product much fresher and a longer shelf life,” he said.
“I think we’re reasonably good growers now – certainly our products are the best available.”
“We’ve never been able to keep up with demand in the winter. That’s why we want to keep expanding. People are constantly telling us how they go into their supermarkets and can’t buy our rocket, or watercress as it often sells out within a day of arriving,” Don said.
“Our staff are the key to our success. We have a wonderful team of 17 who genuinely care about the herbs they produce, the quality that goes into each packet and the welfare of each member of that team.
“That has been one of the major delights – building a business rurally that employs locals and giving back to the community,” he said.
Sadly, tragedy struck in 2010 when Ms De Houwer was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Subsequently, she sold her half of Tasman Bay Herbs to Bryce Gilchrist, a former general manager of corporate affairs for NZ King Salmon.
In 2013, Mrs De Houwer passed away. Following this, Don and Bryce became full partners, with Don looking after the marketing and day-to-day operations, while Bryce takes care of the planning, HR, and financial side.
In 2015, as testament to their hard work and vision, Tasman Bay Herbs was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Ora Dreams Project, an initiative established to fuel the dreams of Kiwi businesses.
“(This grant) helped us connect with our consumers – especially in the cities. We’re from rural NZ, an idyllic area where life is a little slower,” Don said.
“We’d love to learn what our consumers think of our herbs, get them sharing recipes online, asking us questions about herbs and learning all about the health benefits you get from fresh herbs through Facebook, our website, and other social media.”
“We’d like to be at the forefront of the culinary herb industry, and to be in at least one supermarket or produce store in every town and city in New Zealand,” he said. Ω