How growing microgreens has turned into a growing business

Justin and Lisa Brocato formed their first partnership at 15, when they began dating. They married, had two children and were enjoying successful careers: Justin as catering manager at Rich Products, and Lisa as a senior marketing consultant at Entercom Buffalo. But they knew they were destined for something more.

“We always wanted our own business,” said Justin. “It was a dream we shared from the beginning, working together doing something we love.”

That dream came true in 2016 when the husband and wife team established Rooted Locally, LLC. Justin’s department was having difficulty finding fresh, quality microgreens to use in meals they prepared for weddings and events, so Justin researched them and decided to try growing his own.

“The microgreens we were getting were coming from California and didn’t have the quality and freshness we wanted,” said Justin. “Locally grown microgreens are a pure example of the ‘farm-to-table’ concept and make a huge difference in terms of flavor and nutritional benefits.”

Microgreens are young vegetable, herb, and flower greens approximately one to three inches in height. Both stems and leaves are edible, and they are known for their strong, concentrated flavors – everything from neutral to spicy to sweet, sour and bitter – and high nutrient content. Because of their small size, microgreens grow quickly and can be sold before harvest – which means they can be kept alive until just before they are consumed, for the freshest flavors and maximum health benefits.

“Studies show there can be up to 40 times the nutrients packed into these tiny plants versus larger plants, so the health benefits are impressive,” said Lisa. “We sell them mainly as live plants, which is the freshest way to consume them, and they can be used for approximately two weeks.”

A huge investment wasn’t required to start the business; Justin and Lisa used $500 of their own money to purchase a greenhouse and seeds, and learned by trial and error. They started by selling microgreens at the North Tonawanda Farmer’s Market that first year, and did very well.

“Starting at the farmer’s market was great. It was less pressure and it gave us immediate cash, which allowed us to plan and budget for our next purchases,” said Lisa.

Next came the Elmwood Bidwell Farmer’s Market, where they attracted the attention of several local restaurateurs, who soon became very happy customers.

Nick Cee and James Gaydos, chefs at Giancarlos Steakhouse in Williamsville, were looking for a local source for pea shoots when they discovered Rooted Locally at the Elmwood Bidwell market.

“We saw this beautiful table of perfect pea shoots,” said Cee. “We got to know Justin and Lisa, built up a great rapport with them, and are now regular customers.”

“We started buying small quantities of different varieties, such as nasturtiums, pea tendrils, amaranth, radishes and basil,” said Gaydos. “Now, we buy – on average – 20 to 30 trays a week from Rooted Locally.”

Both chefs agree being able to use fresh microgreens takes their dishes to the next level, significantly enhancing their guests’ dining experience.

“Customers reap all the flavor, nutrition, and esthetic value when we are able to cut and plate the microgreens 30 seconds before serving their food,” said Cee. “It’s that final accent that creates that magical dish we pride ourselves on.”

But it’s not just Rooted Locally’s products that Cee and Gaydos appreciate. Both agree the commitment to service is unbridled.

“If there’s something we need for a particular dish, Justin delivers – even at obnoxious hours,” said Cee. “Having a resource such as Rooted Locally available locally makes all the difference for us.”

Rooted locally and growing quickly

“In the last year, we’ve gone from growing 250 to 300 trays a week to growing 500, and we now supply more than 35 restaurants and participate in several farmers markets,” said Justin. “We grow more than 25 varieties, including basil, peas, lettuce, cilantro and arugula to the lesser-known red vein sorrel, amaranth and nasturtiums.” Not surprisingly, their largest expense is electricity, so they can provide their seeds with the proper light and temperatures to grow year-round.

As the business grew, the couple purchased a foreclosed home in Amherst with more land. Justin left his job and is now devoted full time to the business. They pride themselves on using organic soil and only non-GMO seeds; chemicals are never used. They even buy back the reusable trays (as they search for a ‘greener’ option).

Both are thrilled they were able to start their business in their hometown, and that they’re already seeing a profit.

“We’ve found in Buffalo there’s more attention being paid to entrepreneurs,” said Lisa. “Organizations such as 43North offer tremendous support, and there are numerous opportunities for mentorships,” said Lisa. A $25,000 Ignite Buffalo grant not only provided much-appreciated capital, but also affirmation they were on the right track.

“People want to support local businesses and want to eat locally grown foods,” says Justin. “Buffalonians appreciate how food looks and tastes, and local chefs love to try new dishes.”

As the couple looks to the future, they see a few challenges, such as a desire to be more “green.” They are working on a website, looking at offering more herbs, edible flowers, and leafy greens, and know they will eventually need more space. They’re also talking about creating more recipe ideas and doing Facebook Live and/or YouTube videos.

“It’s exciting thinking of all the possibilities,” said Lisa. “And it’s satisfying that an idea we had has turned into something sustainable that provides our community with a fresh, healthy food option.”

Read more articles by Nancy Cardillo.

Nancy Cardillo is a Buffalo-based freelance writer and public relations consultant. She can be reached at
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