Last year in January as part of our annual Retail Tour we visited Whole Foods Market in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It’s a pretty impressive store with electric vehicle charging stations, solar panels and wind turbines in the parking lot… but what really got our attention was the giant greenhouse sitting on top of the store. Owned and operated by Gotham Greens, the urban greenhouse grows over 200,000 lbs (about 90,700 kgs) of lettuce and herbs each year, supplying the store downstairs as well as other local restaurants in the neighbourhood.
So, what is Gotham Greens?
Gotham Greens is ‘a worldwide pioneer in the field of urban agriculture’ or in layman terms, utilises unused rooftops in cities to produce ‘hyper-local, premium quality, greenhouse grown’ veggies and herbs. It’s a pretty beautiful concept, and made even more inspirational by the fact that their product is pesticide-free, and their facilities use 100% clean electricity. They operate 170,000 square feet (15,794 square meters) of farming space across four locations in NYC and Chicago. What’s so interesting about this business is that they are champions of conscious capitalism. Meaning that they are a for profit company but they are using their purpose to create a commercial outcome.
Chatting to Gotham Greens.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Nicole Baum, Senior Marketing and Partnerships Manager, about the businesses operations and future of the company. Baum joined Gotham Greens’ back in 2014 when they opened their first and (currently) only location located on top of Whole Foods Market in Gowanus, Brooklyn. She joined the team as one of the first members of their marketing department (alongside the CEO ) and has also played a key role in the company’s sales efforts. Here’s what she had to say:
Q. How did this site (Whole Foods Market at Gowanus with Gotham Greens) come about?
A: Whole Foods Market was one of our early customer back in 2011 when we launched our first greenhouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The 15,000ft2 (roughly half an acre) rooftop greenhouse was really our proof of concept and demonstrated that we could grow a meaningful amount of produce year round, right here in NYC. The project represents the first commercial scale rooftop greenhouse of its kind in the US and within the first few months of operation, we had attracted customer like Whole Foods Market and well known Michelin starred chefs.
Q. So you weren’t just selling to Whole Foods but you also had other local customers is that right?
A: Whole Foods Market has been a very important customer for us from the very beginning. Our companies share a lot of the same ethos including a strong commitment to sustainability. Gotham Greens’ brand is all about providing hyper local produce to our surrounding communities so our partnership here at Whole Foods in Gowanus was a no brainer. We have 3 rooftop greenhouses here in NYC and sell to many different supermarkets, online platforms and restaurants in the area including: FreshDirect, Peapod, ShopRite, Target, Food Towns and Key Foods.
Q. So tell us about how you grow – what’s your process?
A:We’re growing hydroponically in high tech, temperature controlled greenhouses right in the city. We grow, harvest and package everything on site and deliver from farm to fork within hours of harvest. Our greenhouse team is here early in the morning so the lettuces, herbs and food products (we recently launched a line of pesto!) can be delivered to our retail and wholesale customers quickly. In the case of our location on top of Whole Foods Market in Gowanus, the product literally goes downstairs through the elevator and makes its way onto the retail shelf…it doesn’t get fresher than that!
Nicole Baum, Senior Marketing and Partnerships Manager
Q, In terms of your different locations, what type of produce are you growing and does it change by location?
A: We’re focusing primarily on growing lettuces and herbs as these items are highly perishable and typically aren’t grown locally year-round. In NYC and Chicago, we tend to have harsh winters and the majority of lettuces and herbs in supermarkets are either being imported (from places like Mexico and Israel) or trucked across the country from CA. Of the leafy greens and herbs that are grown domestically, 98% is being grown in California and Arizona (2 states that also happen to be experiencing extreme drought.) We realised there was an opportunity to grow these leafy greens and herbs right here in the city for fresh, year-round vegetable production. The result is fresher, better tasting produce with greater shelf life and a much smaller environmental footprint.
It’s estimated by the NRDC that as much as 50% of fresh produce is thrown out between the farm and the fork! That’s crazy wasteful! Urban farming seeks to address food waste by growing food in close proximity to consumers. Last summer we created a new product called ‘Ugly Greens’ (similar to Harris Farm’s imperfect picks), which packages any slightly blemished lettuces and herbs and sells it at a fraction of the price. While Ugly Greens make up a small percentage of our overall production, we see this product as a way for Gotham Greens to help raise awareness around the issue of food waste.
Q. Along that line of thought are you working with any charities or not-for-profits?
A: Yes, we work with food rescue organisations such as The Greater Chicago Food Depository and City Harvest to distribute our greens to folks within our communities facing food insecurity. We also regularly donate our seedlings to local school and community gardens to support wellness and environmental education programs.
Q. Will you open up any more Gotham Greens on top of a Whole Foods Market or was this a one-off?
A: This location here in Gowanus, Brooklyn on top of Whole Foods Market is really a unique partnership and a model for what sustainable supermarkets of the future might look like. Whole Foods Market has been an incredible partner for us so we’re definitely open to it.
Q. So what the plans for the future of Gotham Greens?
A: We have a number of new projects in the works, stay tuned for more info later this year! As a company, we’re committed to keeping a “hyper local” approach to business. That mentality applies to everything we do from the products we grow, the organisations we partner with and the people whom we employ. We currently have over 150 full-time employees across our 4 facilities.
Q. Do you do much around educating kids on food and where their produce comes from – are you going out to schools?
A: We host free weekly tours from our outdoor observation at our Brooklyn location from April to November. We also donate hundreds of lettuce and basil seedlings each week to local schools and community gardens throughout NYC and Chicago. Here in the city, people don’t always think of their “local” farm as being down the street and on a rooftop. Here at Gotham Greens, we want to change that.
Q. What’s been your biggest challenge?
A: When we first built our flagship greenhouse back in 2011, there was no precedent for what we were doing so a lot of the challenges stemmed from having to navigate city building permits and fire codes.
Q. Where are you looking at for locations?
A: We tend to build our large scale urban greenhouses in industrial, urban locations and we seek to hire from our local neighbourhoods. In the case of our rooftop greenhouse in Pullman, Chicago, we built the ‘World’s Largest Rooftop Farm’ on top of Method’s LEED Platinum Southside Soap Box. Together we’ve created 130+ full-time jobs in a part of the country that faces higher than average unemployment rates. Together we’re putting down roots to create a cleaner and healthier Chicago.
Want to vist Gotham Greens
Find Gotham Greens on Facebook and sign up for one of their free weekly observation deck tours April- November in Brooklyn, NY. For more information on Gotham Greens see their website www.gothamgreens.com