Eric Haley, Co-Founder and CFO of Gotham Greens, recalls the lightbulb moment when he and Viraj Puri got the idea for their fresh produce and food company. Puri, Co-Founder and CEO of Gotham Greens, at the time worked for an environmental engineering firm that built the nonprofit Science Barge, which floats on the Hudson River. The barge features a hydroponic greenhouse vegetable farm, solar panels and wind turbines to educate people about sustainability. Famous chefs would bring their children to the barge on Saturday mornings and almost invariably asked about purchasing the fresh produce, leading the two to wonder. “Why would a Michelin star chef be so interested in buying lettuce produced in a greenhouse when there are farmers’ markets everywhere?” says Haley.
Haley, who grew up in Greenwood Village and attended Cherry Creek High School, met Puri while studying abroad in Italy. The roommates became best friends and years later, both were living in New York City where Haley was an investment banker and Puri worked in the clean tech and sustainability fields.
After conducting research on the produce supply chain, Puri and Haley were stunned to learn from conversations with retailers and local restaurants how far fresh produce had to travel. Much of the basil sold in New York, for example, had been grown in Israel. From there, it flew to JFK and transferred to a flight across the country. After touching down in Los Angeles, it moved to the Salinas Valley. There, the basil was packaged before being flown back to New York with “packed in California” labels. Puri and Haley saw an opportunity to take their love of sustainability and grow fresh produce that could be harvested and delivered the next day to area retailers and restaurants. One business plan, one grant and multiple calls to friends and family later, they built their first 15,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2011.
This spring, the company will open its first Mountain West location, a 30,000-square-foot greenhouse built on land they are leasing from the Stanley Marketplace. Though they looked at many Colorado locations, they found the Stanley site ideal “given its location, its adaptive reuse and its customer-facing element,” says Haley. Two of Haley’s longtime friends work for developer Westfield Company, Inc., and he admits that having his friends as landlords was appealing as well, making the project that much more fun. The company currently operates six greenhouses in New York City and Chicago and will open new locations in Providence and Baltimore.
“We focus on redevelopment projects and adaptive reuse of urban space,” reflects Puri. “The Stanley site was a brownfield so we had to remediate the land before starting construction.”
Within the Denver-Aurora greenhouse, there will be different climate and humidity zones for seedlings, lettuces and basil. Puri estimates the location will have a little over an acre of hydroponic growing space, producing about 20 acres’ worth of greens due to the great efficiency of indoor greenhouse farming. Gotham Greens’ greenhouses use 95 percent less water and 97 percent less land than conventional farming. By eliminating all that international and domestic travel, Gotham Greens reduces the produce’s carbon footprint while giving retailers and consumers fresher food with a longer shelf life.
Gotham Greens grows its produce without pesticides or herbicides, in a controlled environment. A resident ladybug population eliminates aphids and other would-be pests. The locally-grown lettuces have a suggested retail price of $3.99 for a 4.5-ounce container. For about the same price, the company also sells 10-ounce bags of “Ugly Greens (Are Beautiful),” those imperfect leaves from the outer layer of lettuces, which may be blemished or discolored but are just as tasty and nutritious as the perfect leaves, according to Haley.
When asked about the elephant in the room—those plastic clamshells—Puri says the company continues to look at alternatives at trade shows in Germany and elsewhere but for now uses plastics to meet supermarkets’ food safety and packaging requirements, and to prevent food waste by extending product shelf life. Though Gotham Greens has considered compostable plastics, Haley says a lot of the plant-based plastics originate in GMO corn and are not necessarily better for the environment, especially since they typically can’t be backyard composted. “We are hopeful …that the brilliant minds who are out there will come up with more sustainable solutions that we can adopt,” says Puri.
Beyond growing a lot of greens, both Puri and Haley expect the Denver-Aurora business will serve as an educational site, hosting tours for schools, clubs and university classes that want to learn more about sustainability, indoor greenhouse agriculture and hydroponics. Although the typical germination rate is 98%, they overplant to ensure that their greenhouses are always growing at capacity. They routinely give away any excess seedlings to schools and community groups.
Gotham Greens will not have a retail site but will supply area grocers and restaurants. The company’s longstanding relationship with Whole Foods Market means the retailer will certainly be selling Denver area-grown produce at local Whole Foods Markets. The company is currently exploring additional local partners. Haley says they expect to hire about 30 full-time employees at the Denver-Aurora location. For more information and to see job openings, visit www.gothamgreens.com