When Don Grant and Yoka De Houwer bought a kiwifruit farm in Nelson in the mid-90s and immediately started to pull up the fruit trees, their neighbours thought they were crazy.
But they had a plan.
“Yoka loved to cook but couldn’t buy fresh herbs in any supermarkets,” Don says. “We discovered a demand from restaurants for fresh herbs so bought 2 hectares at Riwaka, 7km from Motueka and built a small 375sqm greenhouse to grow culinary herbs.”
Today Tasman Bay Herbs produces some of the freshest, most in-demand herbs in the country, and with a journey filled with ups and downs, their path to success has been anything but ordinary.
Learning by doing
While neither came from a business background (Don was a tour coach driver and guide while Yoka was a lecturer in international law at Antwerp University in Belgium), they had the passion to learn and that was enough.
“We enrolled in a 2 week seminar in Nelson to learn how to run a small business,” Don says. “One day at lunch time we were in Blackmore’s Book Shop when 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.”
And a popular journey too, getting off to quite a start and expanding rapidly from 1996 to 2000, before they decided to slow down a bit and enjoy life.
“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.”
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The desire to be the best
From the start, Tasman Bay Herbs has always aimed to be the best, the freshest, and the most innovative in the market. And Don believes they achieved that.
“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.
“I think we’re reasonably good growers now – certainly our products are the best available.”
If demand is anything to go by, the consumers are loving their natural approach to growing.
“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.”
And they wouldn’t be able to produce such high quality herbs if the people involved weren’t just as amazing.
“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.”
A tragic turn
Unfortunately tragedy struck when Yoka was diagnosed with a terminal cancer in 2010 causing a change in priorities for the couple.
Thankfully Don had a great best mate in Bryce Gilchrist, who as a member of the advisory board knew the business well, so he bought into the business and took care of things while Don looked after Yoka.
In 2013 Yoka passed away, but her legacy is being carried on by Don and Bryce.
A helping hand on the path forward
After Yoka passed away, 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.
Together they have great plans for Tasman bay Herbs, and in early 2015 they were awarded a $25,000 grant from Ora, giving them the chance to achieve them.
“(This grant) will help us connect with our consumers – especially in the cities. We’re from rural NZ, an idyllic area where life is a little slower.
“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.”
And when asked about their goals for the future?
“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.”
SEE ALSO: What’s your business worth?