An Urban Oasis: How Gotham Greens Created a Smart Way to Feed Locavores

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Gotham Greens Whole Foods Rooftop

One of Gotham Greens’ greenhouses is located atop Whole Foods in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

It was a chilly day after Winter Storm Stella made her snowy footprint here in New York City. On a day like this, in the middle of hipster town Gowanus, Brooklyn, who would’ve imagined thousands of heads of  lettuce, arugula, and basil growing at full speed on the roof of Whole Foods Market? This product of innovation is none other than the urban greenhouse operated by Gotham Greens, the largest rooftop vegetable grower in the United States.

As I entered the greenhouse, my freezing hands rejoiced in the balmy, 70-degree environment, as if summer had suddenly arrived. Full-spectrum light bulbs were shining brightly on tender leaves, sprawling across the 20,000-square foot space. Both the temperature and the light intensity, I was told, are adjusted to create the ideal environment for the vegetables to thrive. The ongoing adjustments also take into account the outside weather, so on a cloudy day like this, supplemental lights are added to support optimal photosynthesis.

Viraj Puri, CEO of Gotham Greens, pointed out to me that the greenhouse is fully equipped with heating systems for the winter and cooling systems for the summer. “It’s all done by a computer-controlled system, so it’s quite sophisticated,” he said. “We’re analyzing a lot of data. The goal is to make the most optimal growing conditions for the crops, to make them happy and healthy. Then you’ll get a good yield and good quality, which means the crops are less susceptible to diseases and pest pressure, and ultimately we’re giving superior products to the customers.”

Join Viraj Puri of Gotham Greens at the Change Food Dinner on Monday, March 27, 2017. You can purchase a ticket for the dinner or a special VIP ticket to dine with Viraj.

Viraj Puri Portrait

“By providing the crops with a very precise recipe of nutrients, we can almost ensure that the crops are more nutritious than other field-grown, conventionally grown, or organically grown crops because we are making sure they are getting the right proportion of the nutrients that they need,” says Viraj Puri, CEO of Gotham Greens, in the rooftop greenhouse atop the Whole Foods location in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

This rooftop greenhouse runs on an advanced hydroponics and sustainable energy system so that it not only achieves high energy efficiency but also maximum yield per square foot.

First, the plants are supplied with the exact blend of nutrients mixed into the water that flows through the “chutes” where they stand. Because of the nutrient-dense water supply, each head of lettuce and herb can grow very close to each other.

“We dissolve nutrients into the water, which circulates through our growing system. The channels are slanted downward slightly so a thin film of water is constantly running under the roots,” explains Julie McMahon, Digital Marketing Coordinator. “We collect all of our water for reuse so it’s super water efficient, using 10 times less water than traditional agriculture while producing 25 times the yield. We tailor the nutrients to each crop variety so that we can give the plants exactly what they need to thrive. It’s very efficient and produces consistent yields year round.”

Wind turbines and solar panels in the parking lot provide a portion of the renewable electricity used in the greenhouse.

Second, all the electricity used to power the facility is from 100% renewable sources, generated by a combination of on site wind turbines & solar panels in the parking lot and offsite sources.

But, it’s not all about advanced technology. To ensure the highest quality produce, Viraj jokes that they do something unconventional with the crops – the growing team plays music to them every day of the week. “They are happy plants,” he said with a big smile. “They listen to a lot of music – different on different days of the week. Fridays are Reggae day. They also get some bluegrass, classic rock, and some classical music.” Because the plants are housed in consistently optimal growing conditions, from temperature to light to nutrients and music, harvest time is shorter than conventionally grown crops. For lettuces, it takes 34-40 days from seed to harvest. This is compared to 6-8 weeks on a conventional farm.

After walking past row after row of greens, I was greeted by swarms of insects near the Italian basil. It turns out that these insects are deliberately introduced to manage the pests that might nibble or chew on the leaves. As a result, pesticides can be completely avoided.

 

The ‘Light Bulb Moment’

I sat down with Viraj to find out what sparked his desire to build such an innovative urban rooftop greenhouse.

“I came to greenhouses and the good food movement not from the food perspective but from the sustainability perspective,” he said. His background is in environmental engineering, clean technology, and green development. Early in his career, he worked on projects ranging from green building design to solar PV installation to fuel-efficient cook stoves. When he was preparing to pursue a graduate degree in environmental engineering and business, he had an  opportunity to work as a project manager in a small research and development greenhouse.

“That was my first exposure to anything agricultural. I became fascinated by the greenhouse and how we can grow more crops using a fraction of the resources compared with conventional farming.”

His work in the greenhouse got him thinking about the issues of our current global agricultural system – its unbounded consumption of natural resources and massive carbon footprint – and how they relate to the problem of population growth, urbanization, and climate change. “It seemed that greenhouses were a potentially nice solution to help resolve some of these issues – not the only solution, but one solution. That’s really the genesis of how I got into this business.”

Gotham Greens Seedlings

Excess seedlings are donated to community gardens and schools in the spring.

In addition to making a positive impact on our food systems, Viraj was driven by an entrepreneurial spirit. He started to recognize that consumers were becoming more aware of these environmental issues and were adjusting their buying habits. “We started to see the growth of farmers’ markets, farm-to-table restaurants and disruptions happening among consumer food brands. So then the light bulb went off, and the idea is that if you could build these environmentally sustainable and  high-tech greenhouses in and around an urban area, you are going to effectively create a good brand and be able to sell to urban residents who care about buying things locally and getting to know the farm.”

In late 2008, Viraj and his partners crafted a business plan, entered a competition, and won. Together, they raised enough funding through families and outside loans. In 2011 their first greenhouse was built in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

This first project was very successful. All of the produce sold out in a few months. “That gave us the confidence that our idea was a good one,” Viraj recalled. “Consumer demand is there for high-quality, locally grown, environmentally sustainably grown produce. So we decided we should build more greenhouses.”

Today there are three greenhouses in New York City and one in Chicago, covering a total of 170,000 square feet of space, employing about 140 people and selling 15-20 different kinds of greens and herbs. Demand for Gotham Greens’ produce has increased six-fold since the company was founded in 2009.

In terms of distribution, Gotham Greens’ produce is sold in a wide range of retail stores as well as to restaurants and catering companies. They sell not only to high-end organic food markets and restaurants but also to neighborhood grocery chains and food joints because the company wants to ensure its produce is accessible to a wide range of consumers.

Gotham Greens Greenhouse“We are very happy with the results. The first project was just a prototype, a proof of concept more than anything. And now the fact that we’re able to scale proves that it’s a legitimate business–and a profitable, sustainable one at that. We’re meeting the demand of the New York Tri-state area for local produce, year around, including the winter months, instead of importing from overseas or California or Mexico. There is value in that.”

Not only is eating local produce a more sustainable and nutritious practice, the vegetables, especially highly perishable ones, can stay fresh longer because the week-long transportation process is removed from the equation. As a result, there is also less food waste.

When asked if he still has the same excitement he felt in the beginning of his business, Viraj said, “I do.” He is both excited and proud to find himself “at the nexus of farming, technology, and entrepreneurship.”

“Things have changed. The challenges are now a little bit different from what it was in the beginning. When we first started, it was like: ‘Can we do it? Can you build the facility and start growing produce?’ Now it’s about expanding and scaling. We are a thriving business now so there are other components of the business that are important, like operations, human resources and other things that maybe we didn’t think about. But it’s very rewarding every time we are able to open a new greenhouse. We just want to bring healthier, more sustainably grown food to more people. It’s part of this huge movement that is growing around the country, around the world.”

The path leading up to today’s success hasn’t been smooth. Viraj and his partners have blazed a new trail. “It’s such a new business to grow crops this way in an urban area–How do you build the facilities? How do you market it? How do you sell it? How do you produce it? There was no blueprint. With some other businesses, you can follow the footsteps of other entrepreneurs. But you couldn’t really do that in this case.”

Ugly Greens Are Beautiful

Last summer, Gotham Greens introduced a new line of produce – “Ugly Greens {are beautiful}” – which are cosmetically less attractive “leftovers” from the harvests sold at a deep discount at select supermarkets. These less-pretty leaves used to be consumed by staff and composted, but there was still some waste.

Butter lettuces and arugula are the most popular produce among consumers.

“By growing locally and delivering to the customer within a day or so, there is not a lot of waste along the supply chain,” explained Viraj. “That being said, even along our highly controlled and short supply chain, some of the leaves get bruised or a little bit ripped when we’re packaging, weighing or harvesting them…. We realized the issue of food waste based on cosmetic reason has become a big issue that is starting to get more attention around the nation. So why not package them and sell them at a deep discount while also reducing food waste and creating some awareness around this issue?”

Since “Ugly Greens” launched, market reception has been very positive. Supply is small but most gets sold. Some customers buy them for juicing, for example, but most don’t mind the look and appreciate the lower price.

Going forward, Viraj believes the company will continue to build urban farms in New York, Chicago and other cities – most likely cities with long winter months and lack locally grown fresh produce. He sees a growing consumer demand for locally-grown, high-quality produce, and is confident that his business model can be scaled wherever there is demand from locavores and conscientious citizens aware of today’s important food issues.

Interested in the work of Gotham Greens? Join us at the Lighthouse BK dinner on Monday March 27, 2017 and get a VIP seat with Viraj Puri, co-Founder and CEO, of Gotham Greens.

 

Louisa Wah is a former journalist transitioning to a new career as an integrative nutrition health coach. She is passionate about showing people how to eat and live their way to optimal health. Connect with her at “Eat Right with Louisa”.

Change Food is a grassroots movement creating a healthy, equitable food system.​​ To learn more, visit ChangeFood.org.

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