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Gotham Greens putting roots on the roof to better serve restaurants and retailers

by Christina DiMartino | July 15, 2011

Driven by a vision for a local farm that would offer New York chefs and retailers the freshest and highest-quality culinary ingredients year-round at competitive prices, Viraj Puri and Eric Haley developed their first greenhouse facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY, in 2008. In 2009, the partners joined forces with Jenn Nelkin, a nationally renowned greenhouse expert, as a partner to head Gotham Greens’ greenhouse operations. The first harvest at the greenhouse was in June of this year.


Gotham Greens’ greenhouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY, on the roof of an existing 15,000-square-foot building. (Photo courtesy of Gotham Greens)
“It’s a rooftop greenhouse that we built on top of an existing 15,000-square-foot building,” Mr. Puri, chief executive officer of Gotham Greens, told The Produce News. “We are producing primarily salad greens and herbs currently: baby Butterhead lettuce, basil, Red Sails red leaf lettuce, Tropicana green leaf lettuce and culinary herbs. We plan to add cilantro next.”


The theory behind this operation was well thought out by the partners. They recognized a void and wanted to fill it with high-value, highly perishable products. “We felt that people were not getting an ample supply of high-quality salad greens and decided that would be a great niche for us,” said Mr. Puri. “Our products are currently in several retail stores in New York such as D’Agostino, Whole Foods Markets, Fresh Direct, Union Market and Mario Batali’s retail store, Eataly. But our next step is to supply some of New York’s best-known high-end restaurants. And it’s safe to say that we’ll be in them soon.”

Gotham Greens was financed in part with a $400,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research Development Authority, known as NYSERDA, under the Energy Productivity in Innovative Local Food Production Systems. It also received an $8,000 grand-prize award in 2009 from the New York Green Business Competition, a groundbreaking platform to promote emerging green businesses in the state. The competition rewards investment funds to companies that have the ability to revolutionize their industry by working with local ecological resources while creating economic opportunities.

And Gotham Greens has not been short on media coverage. It has been covered in numerous publications including The Huffington Post, FastCompany, Bloomberg News, the Washington Post, the New York Observer and on “Dan Rather Reports” on HD Net.

The partners did not just wake up one day and decide on a whim that they wanted to build a greenhouse on top of a Brooklyn building. They are all highly experienced and seasoned entrepreneurs, and they are experts on environmental issues. Focusing on green building, renewable energy and environmental design, Mr. Puri has developed and managed start-up enterprises in New York City; Ladakh, India; and Malawi, Africa. He previously worked at New York Sun Works, an environmental engineering firm. His written work has appeared in several books and publications including 100 Percent Renewable - Energy Autonomy in Action and the United Nations Academic Journal. He has received fellowships from the TED conference and the Wild Gift, where he currently serves on the board of directors. While he is a passionate New Yorker, he is equally at home in the mountains and in wild, remote corners of the world. Mr. Puri is also a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design-accredited professional with a bachelor of arts degree from Colgate University in Hamilton, NY.

In addition to his work at Gotham Greens, Mr. Haley works for Corporate Fuel Partners, a Manhattan-based investment bank and private equity fund. He earned his master of business administration degree from the University of Notre Dame and a bachelor of science degree from the University of Wyoming, where he played Division I football.

Ms. Nelkin, greenhouse director for Gotham Greens, developed her expertise in greenhouse systems and management at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. Her expertise encompasses greenhouse system design, plant nutrition, crop and pest management, sensors and controls, and staff training. She has managed greenhouses at the McMurdo and South Pole stations in Antarctica, providing fresh vegetables for U.S. research scientists. She also worked at the greenhouse at the Cuisinart Resort & Spa in Anguilla. Prior to joining Gotham Greens, Ms. Nelkin worked for New York Sun Works, where she designed and directed operations of the Science Barge greenhouse. She earned her master’s degree from the University of Arizona in plant sciences and a bachelor of science degree from Arizona State University in plant biology.

Gotham Greens, said Mr. Puri, has plans for major expansions. “There is no question that we have found a niche that fills a huge void,” he said. “Our second hydroponic farm is currently under construction in Jamaica, Queens, New York, and is a 12,000-square-foot rooftop space. About 70 percent of the fresh produce we produce there will go to Whole Foods Markets in New York.”

Whole Foods has already signed on as the new facility’s first customer, and the company will promote Gotham Greens as part of its local food commitment.

“We don’t just blindly talk about being local, sustainable and natural,” said Mr. Puri. “While our business is about those things, we care about what they stand for: flavor and nutrition, preserving water and soil resources, biodiversity, reducing harmful chemical use in food production, fair treatment of workers, and spending our dollars closer to home. We’ve installed 55 kilowatts of solar panels, and our design incorporates highly energy-efficient measures. The operation is very sustainable, and it reduces the carbon footprint.”

Mr. Puri added, “We focus on the best-tasting, best-quality product, and yeah, we have a neat concept too.”