By Lindsey Greenberger, Marketing and Content Specialist
Sensing urbanites’ hunger for locally grown produce, Gotham Greens seized an opportunity to turn cities’ abundant rooftops into farms. Here, Co-Founder and CFO Eric Haley shares how the company got its start and landed on the shelves (and roof!) of Whole Foods Market.
Where did the idea for Gotham Greens come from?
It was winter in NYC and my business partner and I came to the realization that most of the produce we were finding in the supermarkets was coming from places like Mexico, California, and Israel. We realized that by the time the produce made its way here, it was at least a week old and had changed hands multiple times. We also began to notice that consumer preferences were shifting toward more local and sustainably produced food and we realized there was an opportunity to disrupt the conventional model of agriculture. Overall we were inspired by innovation and technology, and driven by a sense of duty to address ecological issues facing our agricultural system.
How did you get started?
Back in 2011 we built our first project on a 15,000 square foot rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This state of the art, climate controlled rooftop greenhouse represented the first commercial scale facility of its kind in the U.S. We feel it represented a shift in the concept of urban farming from a seasonal community gardening resource, to a year-round, viable, commercial scale farming enterprise. Six years later, we have four greenhouses across two cities and over 150 full time employees.
Why did you choose to launch in NYC and then Chicago?
NYC and Chicago are two of the largest cities in the U.S. and they both lack fresh, local produce year-round. Both cities have strong food scenes and we were seeing the proliferation of farmer’s markets and chefs becoming household names. Once we proved that our concept was successful and commercially viable in NYC, we started looking to other cities and Chicago was an easy choice.
How has the partnership with Whole Foods impacted your business? Are there other customers that have made a particularly significant impact?
Shortly after launching our first greenhouse, we had attracted retail customers such as Whole Foods Market and notable restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern, so we knew that we were on to something. Whole Foods Market has been one of our early supporters and customers since day one. Our companies share a lot of the same ideals and commitment to sustainability so Whole Foods was a natural partner for our second greenhouse, which we built on top of their flagship Brooklyn store in Gowanus. The 20,000 square foot rooftop greenhouse produces over 200,000 pounds of fresh greensand herbs each year, much of which are sold direct to customers in the store downstairs. This project represents the first commercial scale greenhouse farm integrated into a supermarket. Both our relationship with Whole Foods Market and Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group helped us establish credibility early on.
How do you think Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods will impact your business?
Whole Foods Market was an early supporter of Gotham Greens and we share many of the same ethos around sustainability and community involvement. We’ve also been working with Amazon for the last few years and they’ve championed our brand so we have every reason to expect that they’ll continue to support our products and unique partnership!
How has your vision for the company evolved?
When we first started Gotham Greens we were looking to prove that it was possible to grow premium quality, hyper local produce year round right in NYC. Now that we’ve grown into a midsize company with four commercial scale facilities across two major U.S. cities, we’re looking to bring the concept to additional cities across the country.
Where did you get the financing?
When my co-founder and I came up with our concept back in 2009, we did what any sage business owners would do and wrote a business plan. We entered it into the New York Green Business Competition and won the grand prize which gave us a nice initial boost. We also pooled together money from friends and family. Since inception we’ve raised $30 million to date and are in the midst of doing our Series C.
What have been the biggest challenges?
The greatest challenges have come from not having a prototype for what we’re doing. As a pioneer in the urban agriculture space we’ve had to learn on our feet and stay flexible.
How do you do marketing? What have you found to be most effective?
We do all of our marketing in-house. We’re really committed to being part of our communities and do things like host weekly tours on our Gowanus observation deck and donate product to community organized events. We also partner with local community gardening programs, food rescue organizations and public schools to increase environmental education and healthy food access to our neighbors in need.
Where do you want the company to be in 5 years?
I’d like to see Gotham Greens be a local brand on a national level. Now that we’ve proven that urban farming can be done on a commercial scale, year-round and across multiple cities, the sky is the limit!