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February 26, 2016
CHICAGO — As the sun rises, the glowing lights in the huge rooftop greenhouse dim. Here, lettuce never sleeps. It grows, quickly — much more quickly than it would in a farm field. And there is a lot of it, as well as other types of salad greens and herbs.
At nearly two acres — this greenhouse atop a soap factory in Chicago's historic Pullman neighborhood is enormous. Its owners, New York-based Gotham Greens, claim there is no bigger rooftop greenhouse in the world.
“It's hard to picture what a 75,000-square-foot greenhouse really feels like when you're in it,” says Viraj Puri, CEO and co-founder of Gotham Greens, which began producing lettuce crops here in October. The climate-controlled commercial facility will produce leafy greens year-round — even through Chicago winters — for customers including local restaurants and grocery stores.
Gotham Greens has three other smaller rooftop greenhouses in New York City — two in Brooklyn and the other in Queens. One of the Brooklyn facilities rests atop a Whole Foods supermarket and provides greens directly to the store. And there are plans for more greenhouses.
Various growers have been trying indoor vertical farming in old warehouses in the upper Midwest and elsewhere for a few years now — though some indoor farms have struggled to make it, partly due to the cost of running lights to grow the plants.
Puri and co-founder Jenn Frymark, the company's chief greenhouse officer, say their concept solves that problem in a number of ways. An important one is that they rely on the sun for major help.
Perhaps surprisingly, “winter is actually much easier for us than summer,” Frymark says. The greenhouse is kept warm partly by heat from the building below — a factory where Method brand eco-friendly soap is made. Both businesses are helping rejuvenate a neighborhood on Chicago's far South Side where Pullman luxury rail cars were once made.
Neither Gotham Greens co-founder claims this to be the farm of the future for many crops. Right now, greens and vining plants, such as tomatoes, do best in this setting, they say.
But they believe there is a niche market, especially for greens, which are highly perishable. Much of the time, lettuce in the United States comes from California and Mexico and reaches places like Chicago and New York days after being picked.
One of the first customers of Gotham's Chicago greenhouse was the restaurant LUXBAR Chicago. Staff there says customers have begun asking for fresh, locally grown food.
“How often do you go to a restaurant and talk about their lettuce?” LUXBAR general manager John Damas asks, grinning. “It's kind of strange. But to be able to cut down lettuce and harvest it by hand and have it delivered on the plate within hours is a huge deal.”