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Gotham Greens opens a massive greenhouse atop the Brooklyn Whole Foods

Viraj Puri, the CEO and cofounder of Gotham Greens was one of our first interviews for Wakefield, and remains one of our favorites.

That’s because we have yet to find another business quite like it – in 2010, Gotham Greens launched a 15,000 square-foot hydroponic greenhouse atop a vacant warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

They’re currently building a 60,000 square-foot facility in Jamaica, Queens, and earlier this year, the company embarked on its highest-profile venture yet – a 20,000 square-foot hydroponic greenhouse atop Whole Foods’ newest flagship store in Brooklyn.

We sat down with Puri to talk about the company’s new partnership with Whole Foods, their plans for expansion, the marijuana trade, and more.

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Wakefield: How did this partnership with Whole Foods happen?

Puri: When we founded our company in 2009, we wanted to build the nation’s first commercial-scale agricultural facility of its kind, which we completed in early 2011. And Whole Foods was an early customer of ours – they fell in love with the product immediately.

So when Whole Foods started planning a new store in Brooklyn, we were talking, because the plan was to build a flagship with a lot of ecological features.

At first, I think the plans were for a green roof or maybe a garden. But then the conversation turned to, “What’s the feasibility of what you guys did in Greenpoint on top of our new store?”

We got into the all the details with architecture, engineering, and design and it became clear that it was very possible.

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W: Does Whole Foods own the facility here?

P: They’re our landlord. Whole Foods helped get the building ready for us structurally, and then they handed over an empty space. And we came in and built a greenhouse.

And we have a unique kind of marketing arrangement with them – certain products are exclusive to them, certain products will only go to certain stores.

They’ve also invested capital in the project and partnership, so we’re really proud to have a partner whose values are so closely aligned with ours.

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W: What has the building experience been like?

P: It took us about four months to complete.

It’s about 50% bigger than our Greenpoint facility – 20,000 square feet growing eight varieties of greens as well as tomatoes.

We were able to learn from our experience in Greenpoint, with a few minor design changes, so it was a relatively fast process.

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W: And who are you employing?

P: We’ve got about 25 people working here, with a variety of experience. You’ve got people we’ve trained for the last couple of years at the facility, and then there are people wanting to work on a farm, but who also live in the city. We’ve hired people from the neighborhood, And then we’ve got a combination of semi-skilled to skilled positions handling climate control, crop management, operations, harvesting, logistics, and delivery.

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W: Despite the fact that urban farming has gained a lot of acceptance in the last few years, your own growth has been very paced. Is there a reason for that?

P: Urban agriculture is this growing – no pun intended – phenomenon, and it’s obviously becoming more mainstream and there’s a lot of interesting things happening nationwide.

But I think more and more urban agriculture on a commercial level is not yet a completely proven concept. Some people are doing it right, some people are not doing it right, some people have already gone bankrupt – so for us it was important to prove the concept.

So now that we have this proof of concept and a lot of experience under our belt, we’re more definitively and actively pursuing other projects. We have a lot more people reaching out to us whether it’s other Whole Foods, restaurants, or other locations.

There’s a huge market demand for our quality locally grown food – the time is right for us to kind of expand urban agriculture in locations.

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W: I’m curious if you’ve explored the legal marijuana marketplace.

P: Most of the marijuana that is grown in Colorado, Washington, and California is grown hydroponically. Well a lot of it is, I shouldn’t say most of it.

It’s something that we’ve thought about we’re in it but not in the near term. I think there’s still a lot of ambiguity at the federal level. But you never know, things might change.

This interview has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity.

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