In a conversation with Viraj Puri, Co-Founder and CEO of mission-driven agtech startup Gotham Greens, the PBFA team got an in-depth look at the company’s unique story and visionary outlook for the future of food.
In 2009, Puri and co-founder Eric Haley were enjoying a casual meal together at a New York City restaurant when they made a life-changing discovery: The leafy greens on their plates had journeyed thousands of miles to their urban locale.
Further research uncovered that 98% of fresh produce in the United States is grown in California and Arizona, racking up wasteful carbon emissions and food waste in transport and leaving consumers outside those select states with minimal fresh food options. Thus, Gotham Greens was born, with a mission to change the world, one greenhouse at a time.
Today, the quickly-expanding company operates as a vast network of decentralized greenhouses across the country, growing fresh leafy greens with innovative hydroponic growing systems in high-tech, climate-controlled facilities, while keeping their staff local and prioritizing their sustainability promise above all else.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the history of Gotham Greens and the inspiration behind its founding?
Gotham Greens started as a single rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2011 and has grown to be one of the largest greenhouse leafy greens producers in North America. Today, we own and operate 13 high-tech, climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses totaling more than 40 acres (1.8 million square feet) across nine states: California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia.
In our early business planning days, Gotham Greens Co-Founder and CFO Eric Haley and I were dining at a restaurant in NYC and we learned that the pasta we were enjoying was garnished with basil that had been flown half-way around the world from Israel. We were surprised to learn this and after researching further, we discovered that 98% of leafy greens grown in the U.S. come from two states: California and Arizona. After traveling thousands of miles east, leafy greens and delicate herbs like basil are at least a week old and leave a significant mark on the environment through carbon emissions and food waste. At that moment, we knew that there was a clear need and purpose for building farms closer to where people live all over the U.S.
When we started Gotham Greens, there were no commercial-scale hydroponic and vertical farms in the country – and there certainly weren’t any located in densely populated cities like NYC. We set out to help innovate and differentiate the fresh produce supply chain by building and operating a decentralized network of greenhouses across the United States, to produce and deliver fresh, longer lasting and delicious salad greens, herbs, plant-based dips, dressings and cooking sauces year-round to our customers.
What do people need to know about Gotham Greens’ mission? Can you speak to your company’s sustainability promise?
More than a decade ago, we set out to reimagine how and where fresh produce is grown, use resources more efficiently, deliver better food to consumers, and improve people’s health and the communities surrounding our greenhouses. Since our founding in 2009, we have been committed to providing amazing high-quality, fresh food that celebrate plants as our signature ingredients and flavors, while using new solutions for conserving vital natural resources. For example, by using hydroponic growing systems in high-tech, climate-controlled greenhouses, Gotham Greens’ farms use up to 95% less water and 97% less land compared to conventional farming and provide a consistent and proven way of growing food closer to where people live, year-round regardless of the weather outside. In fact, Gotham Greens’ unique irrigation techniques use less than one gallon of water to grow a head of lettuce compared with up to 10 gallons used in conventional open-field farming.
Gotham Greens became a Certified B Corporation™ in 2021, marking a huge milestone in our mission of driving toward a more sustainable food system through industry-leading social and environmental practices. As part of that certification, we announced new sustainability commitments, including around emissions and plastic packaging reduction.
Beginning as a single greenhouse providing fresh produce to locals in your city and eventually taking the leap to develop your own line of consumer packaged goods, such as your plant-based dips and dressings, can you share more about the inspiration behind Gotham Greens’ move towards fresh foods production?
Our move beyond simply growing produce to creating fresh foods actually came as a way to reduce food waste! Many years ago, one of our team members started to save parts of our basil plants and turn it into fresh pesto. After a bit of experimenting, we started to produce our fresh pesto, which is now available in classic, vegan and spicy varieties and has a very devoted following among consumers.
Since then, we’ve worked hard to help people put more greens at the center of their tables, introducing a line of fresh salad dressings and plant-based dips in recent years, and we’re committed to bringing consumers the best-tasting, most flavorful fresh foods in the category. We are exploring exciting new additions to our fresh food portfolio that celebrate plant-based ingredients as the main hero and inspiration. Our leafy greens, herbs and time-saving fresh foods can be used across many usage occasions, from traditional salads, to wraps, to sandwiches, pizza, and so much more. Consumers can visit our website or our Instagram feed (@gothamgreens) for recipe inspiration and get ideas to make sure their plates are packed with plants. We hope consumers can sense Gotham Greens’ commitment to taste, quality and sustainability in every bite.
One of Gotham Greens’ key values is community. Distributing only locally to keep your food fresh and establishing jobs for residents who live near your greenhouse facilities are among just some of the ways your team shows up for your neighbors. What inspired this business model and what has been your most pivotal milestone in your community service?
We’re committed to creating jobs for residents from our local communities. In addition to healthy and enjoyable year-round work, we’re also dedicated to urban renewal and becoming permanent fixtures in our home cities. By partnering with local schools, community leaders and non-profits, Gotham Greens helps to put better food on the table through environmental, educational and community initiatives. In 2022, we donated more than 44,000 pounds of food to families in need and provided more than 27,000 seedling donations for community gardens and educational purposes. Since 2020, we’ve donated more than 217,000 pounds of food and we look forward to giving back to more communities as we expand into new regions like the South and Southeast, where we’re opening new greenhouses this fall.
Gotham Greens has expanded quickly throughout the United States, opening three new greenhouses in Colorado, Georgia, and Texas this year alone. How do you select which communities you would like to serve next? Given each community has its own unique character, how do you go about integrating your greenhouses into so many new and diverse cultural landscapes?
For many parts of the country, it’s difficult to get fresh, local produce all year round. Gotham Greens is intentionally expanding in cities across America with the goal of delivering sustainably grown fresh produce within a day’s drive from our greenhouses to 90% of consumers across the U.S. We want to make our products more accessible to more consumers across the country and aim to do this by building enough scale and efficiency in our greenhouse operations that we can provide our products at a price parity to organic produce. With the current water crisis in states like California and Arizona, bringing locally grown, sustainable produce available to consumers nationwide is more important than ever. By taking small steps like buying locally grown produce, we can work together to create a brighter future.
One of the goals of this series is to help shine a light on the stories and individuals behind the companies. What is your big “why” for working in the plant-based foods industry? Is there a particular cause or fact that you learned that motivated your work and passion?
From a young age, I’ve always been drawn to sustainability and hold a deep appreciation for nature, natural resources and what the earth provides. As a father of young children, I’m also very focused on the types of foods I’m preparing for my family at home. Food systems are responsible for 34% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, use half of the world’s habitable land and are responsible for 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. In order to feed more people, we need to innovate more resource efficient methods of farming that yield more product on less land using fewer resources. When I co-founded Gotham Greens in 2009, we hoped that by providing greater access to fresh, sustainably grown produce at an affordable price, consumers could follow a more balanced diet comprised of fresh vegetables and fruits for a healthier lifestyle.
In your ideal future, how do you hope to see the success of Gotham Greens applied in the next decade? Where would you like to take your company next?
Gotham Greens has been in operation for more than a decade, and every product that makes it to your plate is the result of a cumulative effort from our dedicated team members. Ultimately, our produce isn’t just the best because of how we grow, it’s the best because of who grows it. I’m so proud of the work of every Gotham Greens team member and their dedication to bringing more fresh, local, and sustainably grown greens to plates across the country. I see a bright and promising future for indoor grown produce and plant-based foods from brands like Gotham Greens. We’re proud to be part of the Plant Based Foods Association to partner with like-minded brands throughout the grocery aisles.
Can you give us a sneak peek into any notable news or exciting product launches in the pipeline for 2023?
We are continuing to expand our national greenhouse footprint with new greenhouses in new regions and expanding the capacity of our existing greenhouses. By the end of 2023, we’ll operate more than 40 acres (1.8 million square feet) of hydroponic greenhouses across 13 locations in nine states. We’re exploring exciting new additions to our portfolio that celebrate plant-based ingredients as the main hero and inspiration. In fact, we recently launched a line of new plant-based Dips, which are available now in all Kroger stores and Kroger banners nationwide, as well as select Whole Foods Market stores nationwide, FreshDirect, and more. We have some exciting new innovation items in our pipeline that I look forward to sharing in the coming months.
Where can we learn more about Gotham Greens?
Stay up to date on Gotham Greens by signing up for our newsletter and following us on social media @gothamgreens. You can find additional information about our brand, products and greenhouses by visiting our website.