It may be the place you’d least expect to see a farm — on a rooftop in New York City. But there it is: lush fields of kale, arugula, Swiss chard, lettuce, bok choy and other fresh vegetables and herbs destined for local dinner plates and salad bowls.
Gotham Greens is the first commercial-scale rooftop greenhouse in the United States. Eric Haley MBA ’07 started the business in 2011 with co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri and Chief Agriculture Officer Jennifer Frymark. The farm occupies 35,000 square feet on two rooftops, including the rooftop of a Whole Foods Market store in Brooklyn.
“Consumers are increasingly expressing concern about how and where their food is produced,” says Haley, who also serves as CFO. “Our goal is to meet their demand for integrity and transparency in food production.”
In this Q&A, Haley speaks about his innovative and expanding business and how he started down the green path.
How was the idea for Gotham Greens born?
I have always loved good food, and living in New York City allowed my taste palette to become more demanding. You can find every flavor at its finest — when it’s the freshest. You grow to not only appreciate quality, but to expect it.
After receiving my MBA from Notre Dame, I became just as passionate about entrepreneurship. I constantly thought about how to change or improve daily life. I was particularly inspired by the work of two friends, Viraj Puri and Jennifer Frymark, who were working on a nonprofit project that demonstrated the use of sustainable energy systems. The medium was a small greenhouse atop a floating barge and the by-product was incredibly fresh and delicious produce. The original point, however, was to showcase innovative energy, not to produce crisp lettuce.
The idea of Gotham Greens was born after witnessing chefs from around the city searching everywhere for the tastiest greens possible. We started to run with this idea of how we could sizably commercialize this small example of success, a win-win for people’s palettes and the planet.
Could you give details about expanding to Chicago and beyond?
We’ve proven our model multiple times in New York City and are now ready to take it on the road! Chicago has an incredible local food culture and has also shown great leadership in green building and urban farming over the years. Chicago, like New York, has long winters, which result in a dearth of fresh produce. Given the thriving local food scene, growing demand for local produce and the geographical considerations, Chicago was a logical next step. We’ll be partnering with Method for this project and are constructing a 75,000-square-foot greenhouse on top of their LEED platinum certified factory. Our focus will be primarily on growing salad greens and herbs for the local retail and restaurant market, and we hope to start selling product by mid-2015.
We’re also opening a 60,000-square-foot facility in Queens in 2015, and we have a deep pipeline of potential projects throughout the country.
Please explain the Whole Foods partnership.
Whole Foods Market has been a valued customer and supporter of Gotham Greens since we launched. In early 2014, we opened our second greenhouse (20,000 square feet), located on the rooftop of Whole Foods Market’s flagship store in Brooklyn. It’s the first partnership of its kind between a commercial scale greenhouse and a supermarket.
Why did you choose Notre Dame for your graduate degree?
Both my father, Duane Haley BBA ’71, and brother Andrew Haley ’99 attended Notre Dame, which led me to becoming a huge ND football fan at a young age. While visiting campus, I always wanted to follow in their footsteps. I played football at the University of Wyoming, where I earned my undergraduate degree. But when I was looking at MBA programs, the combination of strong academics and my family history made Notre Dame a perfect fit.
How did your ND graduate business student experience influence your professional experience?
Two specific MBA experiences had a major influence on my professional life: studying entrepreneurship and taking the Applied Investment Management course. While studying entrepreneurship at Notre Dame, I was able to explore how to incorporate sustainability and renewable resources into multiple business plans. In addition to marketing a “green project,” the actual social and financial impact of incorporating green practices is even more important. Studying entrepreneurship gave me an opportunity to not only to learn how to write business plans, but also how to critically evaluate a business plan and the millions of little decisions that go into starting a company.
Applied Investment Management enhanced my technical analysis and financial modeling skills. This was a crucial skill set for my investment banking career and then as an entrepreneur making decisions in a fast-growing company.
What is one of your current goals, either personal or professional?
My personal goals are to work hard, always challenge myself and be as kind as possible to everybody that I encounter.
My professional goal is to contribute to changing the way people procure food on a large scale. Our goal at Gotham Greens is to grow the company into a nationwide local produce company.