Did you know that the first commercial scale hydroponic rooftop farm in the country is located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn? Gotham Greens is the brainchild of CEO Viraj Puri and Co-Founder Eric Haley along with Greenhouse Director Jennifer Nelkin. With 20 full-time employees, this 15,000 sq foot state-of-the-art, climate controlled greenhouse facility produces over 100 tons of premium quality greens and herbs for sale annually to the local NYC restaurant and retail market.
With an impressive 55 kilowatt solar panel installation providing over half of its energy needs during the summer months, the facility is a model of sustainability, with a concern for public health at the core of its existence. When I visited with Viraj at the greenhouse a few weeks ago, he shared more about the creation of this forward thinking business.
Puri’s background in natural resource use and public health had caused him growing concern about the current state of traditional agriculture. Having previously worked at an environmental engineering firm where he was exposed to a hydroponic greenhouse, he was compelled by the idea of producing high quality produce using a fraction of the resources and with a significantly reduced environmental footprint. The creation of a local, urban farm using sustainable practices was born out of this desire to reduce water and land use, fertilizer and pesticide runoff and the fossil fuel use and pollution associated with long distance transportation.
Developing these concepts into a viable commercial model was another challenge entirely, but the team seems to have hit upon a formula that works. Their business has been thriving since its creation in 2009. Gotham Greens products are carried by premier retailers such as Whole Foods and Fresh Direct, and are in demand by highly rated restaurants and award winning chefs like Chef Michael Anthony of the renowned Gramercy Tavern.
The company’s success in such a premium urban marketplace as New York City has offered great incentive to other, similar enterprises. With increasing interest in the so-called food revolution and the locavore and urban agriculture movements, Gotham Greens has provided a model for other projects around the country. However, as Puri cautions, it’s still a relatively new field with few data points and many best practices to be developed, so although the results have been encouraging so far, there is no guarantee of success for similar ventures.
Still, it is promising to see that a business founded on a full range of sustainable principles and practices can be so commercially viable. Gotham Greens received preliminary financing through friends and family, then attracted some angel investors and debt financing based on the fact that they were building a plant and purchasing machinery. With lots of VC and private equity interest in their project, Viraj and his team are now looking into expanding operations beyond their Greenpoint location.
What are some of the challenges Puri has had to overcome in realizing this great vision? Despite the usual start-up hurdles, there was the obvious fact that this had never been done before. Convincing investors to go down such an unfamiliar path is never easy. Plus, there were some very unique engineering and architectural questions that had to be answered in order to create such a massive structure on the top of a two story industrial building.
But the rewards have been more than worth it. In addition to the obvious technological achievements (and let me tell you, this facility is truly a sight to behold), there is the fact that they have developed an amazing product. Gotham Greens lettuces and herbs have been cultivated to a point of excellence. They are sought after for their taste and quality by the most discerning palates, and since they are harvested locally each day, they are delivered within 24 hours of picking, making them about the freshest product on the market.
Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, Puri is committed to the notion of scaling up the availability of quality, fresh produce to a larger constituency of New Yorkers. Engaging with the city’s greenmarkets and EBT program (to allow food stamps to be utilized) are only two facets of the company’s ongoing community outreach. By sharing best practices with the scientific and food communities and maintaining dialogue with potential partners in the non-profit and educational sectors, Gotham Greens remains on the forefront of innovation in the sustainable agricultural movement. They’ve also shown that it is indeed possible to create a profitable business founded on ethically and environmentally sound principles.
Plus, they make the best lettuce ever.
Deborah Oster Pannell is a writer who specializes in the arts, culture, special events and creative projects of all kinds. As Director of Communications for the tech start-up eventwist, she also manages their blog. Some of her favorite work is featured on modernlifeblogs.com, lizkingevents.com, and her own blog, shesaysyes.wordpress.com. Currently she is launching Project Mavens, a literary, editorial design collective, with partner & writer Lillian Ann Slugocki.