Over the past decade there has been a ‘greenshift’ in consumer demand, where technological advancement and investment capital brought the sustainability revolution to an array of sectors from food to cars to household appliances.
Among the success stories was Gotham Greens. Founded in 2009 by Viraj Puri and Eric Haley, the company set out to accomplish a mission of bringing sustainable, ecologically friendly methods of growing produce to urban areas — some of which had been classified as ‘food deserts,’ or locations where it had been difficult or impossible to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. Starting with its tech-forward 15,000 square-foot greenhouse in Brooklyn in 2011, the company began a growth journey that would eventually give it a footprint up and down the Eastern Seaboard and across the Midwest and Mountain regions.
As the pandemic showered unprecedented disruption across the globe, the attention on sustainability dwindled in the public sphere. However, out of the spotlight, the green movement continued to grow. Unlike many of its adjacent counterparts in the food-service industry, Gotham Greens embarked on a period of rapid expansion, opening up 4 new greenhouses in the past 9 months and bringing its total greenhouse footprint to 500,000 square feet to satisfy the increasing appetite for healthy, sustainable food.
As part of our Office Hours live Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram, we asked Viraj to share his insights and perspective on the changes to the food industry, and how, even though it may no longer be leading headlines in the news-cycle, the green revolution is continuing to transform consumer appetites.
Global events tend to be watershed moments for industries and their structures. Do you think the food ecosystem, from how food is packaged to how its delivered, is going to look drastically different after than it had before? What will be the hallmark changes?
I believe one significant shift we’ll experience as a result of the pandemic is in consumers’ willingness and preference to shop online for their groceries. According to Supermarket News, nearly 80% of U.S. consumers have purchased their groceries online since the COVID-19 outbreak, up 39% from before the pandemic. Convenience and availability are increasingly important, and I think consumers will continue to look to curbside pickups and at-home delivery options even after the pandemic is over. As a result, I believe we’ll continue to see products packaged in convenient, individually wrapped formats, from snack packs and meal kits to condiments and dips.
Restaurateurs — like farmers — are a resilient breed and I’m confident in their ability to innovate, pivot and re-invent themselves.
There’s been a lot of talk about people leaving cities, some saying for good, bringing with them an appetite for fresh, quality food. What do you think of this – is it a trend that you’re tracking and planning to respond to? Or are you maintain your focus on major cities and waiting to see what comes of it?
Our approach is to build a network of regional greenhouses across the country so we can provide our locally grown produce and fresh food products to consumers everywhere. While our production facilities are based in urban areas, our distribution is to many suburban areas, as well. As we continue to expand to additional regions, our products are becoming more widely available at major retailers from coast to coast. Now more than ever, we are committed to delivering high-quality, long-lasting and nourishing produce to people when it’s needed most.
Gotham Greens is in a unique position in that the pandemic hasn’t forced it into survival mode – it’s been able to maintain and even grow its business. How does this affect your short- and long-term strategy planning for the company? What’s the move now, is it to pursue as much growth as possible or stick to the original plan?
In the last year, we've been in a period of rapid expansion and have opened 4 new greenhouses in Chicago, Providence, R.I., Baltimore and Denver. During this time, we have more than doubled our growing capacity and have seen a 150% increase in total retail doors year over year. Now more than ever, shoppers are seeking high-quality produce and fresh foods from companies that are transparent about how and where they grow and make it. Our goal is to become a household brand on a national scale and to bring our line of packaged salads, herbs, dressings and dips to consumers across the country. Climate change, extreme weather events and natural resource constraints will increasingly require a more resilient and sustainable food supply chain.
What does technology innovation look like at a greenhouse? How much ‘faster, smaller and better’ changes have occurred in greenhouse tech since your founding, and how does that inform what a modern greenhouse looks like and what it needs to run? Where does it come from?
Gotham Greens is committed to interesting, adaptive reuse projects and operates a network of eight high tech greenhouses across the country. In 2011, we built the Nation’s First Commercial Scale Rooftop Greenhouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Nearly a decade later, our newest greenhouse facilities have more sophisticated operating systems and expansive footprints. These next generation greenhouses are highly automated, climate-controlled facilities that employ proprietary, data-drive control tools and advanced machine learning. They also use less energy than other indoor farming techniques applied commercially today. All of our facilities continue to be powered by 100% renewable electricity and we capture all of our irrigation water for reuse. This enables us to use 95% less water than traditional soil-based practices. While our technology continues to advance, our mission remains the same: to transform how and where fresh produce is grown.
What’s next for restaurants? Some estimates indicate up to 85% of independently owned restaurants may not survive. What does that mean for food suppliers like Gotham Greens in terms of where it looks for business?
This has been a very tough time to be a restaurant owner and as suppliers, farmers and friends to that industry it’s been heart breaking for us as well. Restaurateurs — like farmers — are a resilient breed and I’m confident in their ability to innovate, pivot and re-invent themselves. Fortunately, Gotham Greens has always had a strong mix of retail and foodservice customers, but we’re seeing a lot of farmers scramble to develop a packaged product line in the midst of a pandemic. Out of necessity comes innovation and we’ve seen some foodservice pivot to direct-to-consumer grocery delivery models. Gotham Greens is providing them with our retail products to be included in their custom meal kits, farm boxes and other product bundles.