In Edible-Alpha® podcast #96, Tera welcomes Jennifer Bloeser, co-founder and CEO of Oregon Coast Wasabi, the largest wasabi farm in the U.S. Launched in 2010, the e-commerce company sells an array of fresh and shelf-stable wasabi products to restaurants, retailers, distributors and consumers, as well as plant starts to gardeners.
First, Jennifer demystifies wasabi, a slow-growing perennial that most Americans only know as the spicy green paste served with sushi. Wasabi is brassica native to Japanese streambeds, so it prefers shade and cool temperatures, making the foggy, temperate Oregon shoreline near Tillamook the ideal place to grow it. That’s precisely why Oregon Coast Wasabi set up shop there, cultivating plants in nine low-tech greenhouses.
Next, Jennifer explains wasabi’s growth cycle and details the flavor, heat factor and culinary potential of each plant part. The revered plant also has many traditional medicinal properties. She says that while growing wasabi at scale requires infrastructure, home gardeners can easily maintain a few plants in pots.
Oregon Coast Wasabi is one of only three wasabi growers nationwide, and in the beginning, they sold only wholesale to food distributors. A few years in, they expanded into restaurants and retail and set up an e-commerce site for consumer sales. Though it took some time—and stress—to dial in shipping methods, Jennifer figured it out and the business grew steadily.
She says the company has benefitted from consumers becoming more adventurous with food and more people discovering that the wasabi at sushi restaurants is usually fake. Early media coverage helped too. And with so little competition in this niche market, customers easily find Oregon Coast Wasabi, so they haven’t needed to invest much in marketing—yet. Jennifer knows that with continued growth, that will change.
Right now, the company is in the midst of expanding. They’d been pressing the limits of the current greenhouse space for a while, so Jennifer had been eying a land purchase. The uncertainties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic made her hesitant, but after the company weathered last year just fine, she went for it, signing a sale agreement on a 4-acre property in May.
The previous owner let her start building infrastructure and greenhouses right away, and she self-financed and did much of the construction herself. After closing on the property in August, a construction loan will kick in, allowing the company to pay down its bills. They’ve completed four 3,000-square-foot greenhouses so far, and the property can hold 12 to 14 more. Retaining the original greenhouses will keep sales coming in over the 12 to 18 months it will take for the new crops to mature.