Brooklyn – the most populous of New York City’s five boroughs and often considered to be the most ethnically diverse. As part of last month’s Manhattan-based New York Produce Show and Conference, an international delegation took a trip across the East River for a look what the local novel retailers and urban farms are up to. PBUK was there.
Following the educational talks spanning a broad range of key topics and one of the Western Hemisphere’s biggest trade shows, the group headed off on one of the fair’s numerous tours on offer for a firsthand experience of the fresh produce industry.
First up on the tour, the unambiguously named 3 Guys From Brooklyn, described as one of the few remaining open air produce markets in the Big Apple.
The retailer is 90% fresh fruit and vegetable-driven, and prides itself on being frequented by people of a wide demographic.
“We have the most ethnically diverse clientele anywhere – you will find every race and creed shopping here,” managing partner, and one of the ‘three guys’, Philip Penta said.
“It’s a working class neighbourhood, lower to middle-income, but we’re seeing a lot of gentrification coming down from the northern areas now.
“People joke that this place is like the U.N. [United Nations] of grocery stores – everyone comes together despite their differences to share in the great deals and freshness.”
He also described the market as a place where ‘old friends meet, neighbours run into each other, and families come shopping together.’
“We have become a Brooklyn landmark and are happy to give back to the community that has allowed us to flourish,” he said.
The original market was started in the 1970s by Penta’s partner’s father, who wanted to ensure that everyone – rich and poor – had access to high quality fresh produce. Although it eventually went out of business, the market was reincarnated two decades ago on the site of a former petrol station.
It is open 24 hours every day of the week and offers hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables, along with some other grocery items. Almost all of the fresh produce comes from Hunts Point Terminal in the Bronx, the largest fresh produce distributional centre of its kind in the world.
Plum tomatoes, oranges and seedless table grapes are highlighted as some of 3 Guy’s top-selling items, but Penta said prices changed several times throughout the day along with the introduction of new sales offers.
While he said traditional retail purchases would always be the business’ ‘bread and butter’, the market was now starting to adapt to some current consumer trends like the increasing demand for convenience.
“We have partnered with a third-party online retailer now to do online sales, and we’re also trying to partner with [on-demand delivery network] UberRUSH to take care of those deliveries, because that aspect is expensive,” he said.
“We’ve done a very good job of integrating technology with our point-of-sale, so the website pulls in the pricing that we change every 15 minutes, and that gets updated automatically on the web. We change often here, very often. Things have got to move and there are always new loads coming in.
“For me I don’t need to have another delivery truck on the road, paying insurance, drivers and liability.”
Penta said the company had attempted to start up an ‘ugly produce’ section in a bid to play its part in the fight against food waste, but said it had not proven particularly successful with the local clientele.
A four-foot fresh-cut produce section has also been established inside the store, which he said had received a lot of interest but did not seem to have the same traction as it does in the country’s major retailers.
Next up on the tour we head over to Whole Foods Market’s flagship Brooklyn store, which sells leafy greens grown so locally they are simply sent down from the farm in an elevator and put on the shelves.
Gotham Greens develops and runs urban greenhouse facilities on buildings’ rooftops, and partnered with the health-focused retail chain a few years ago to build its second production site.
Gotham Greens’ second facility is located on the roof of Whole Food Market’s flagship Brooklyn store
“Our inspiration was that here in New York City so much of the fresh produce we have access to is coming from California, and most of the basil comes from Israel,” sales and marketing manager Nicole Baum said.
“We saw there was an opportunity to do this a little bit differently, so we looked at all the unused rooftop space that could actually be used as farmland, and we came up with this crazy idea.”
She said it took a while for a landlord to say yes to the unique proposal, but in 2011 the first greenhouse covering 15,000-square-foot opened in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighbourhood. Within weeks the high-tech facility started to attract attention, and later led to a partnership agreement with Whole Foods.
“Whole Foods contacted us and said ‘we want to build our flagship Brooklyn store, and we would love for you guys to be on it.’ So for us that was like a dream come true, and fast forward a couple of years and we opened this location in January 2014.”
Gotham Greens later opened a 60,000-square-foot greenhouse in the city’s Queens district in 2015, and later the same year opened 75,000-square-foot greenhouse in Chicago – equivalent to an open field farm of 50 acres, according to Baum.
Basil is company’s main product but it grows numerous other leafy greens like Arugula (rocket) and Bok Choy which are among the most highly perishable vegetables and can be grown over a short period of just 30-40 days.
The second facility on the top of Whole Foods Market was initially intended to serve all the chain’s New York stores, but the Baum said the company quickly outgrew that and also began supplying other retailers.
The greenhouse is equipped with such technologies as a retractable roof, light control sensors and a misting system.
Despite the high capital investment needed to develop and construct the greenhouses, Baum says Gotham Greens’ products are able to complete well with field-grown alternatives and are all priced at US$3.99 (£3.25).
Product marketing is also locally focused – what is labelled the Blooming Brooklyn Iceberg in the Northeast is sold as the Windy City Crunch in Chicago.
A variety of other projects are in the pipeline, and the representative said more rooftop greenhouses were set to open next year across the country. Details of where these locations will be, however, are confidential for now.
Photos: Ana Iacob Photography