The Original NYC Roof Farmer

I know I promised you the YMCA, and we’ll get there!  But please indulge me and go forward one letter in the New York alphabet, from Y to Z, and what do you get?  Zabar’s! Last night, decked out in summery white shorts and shirt that matched his shock of white hair, New York’s celebrity grocer, Eli Zabar spoke with New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, at FI:AF about food, French market freshness and his now 16-year-old project of an urban roof farm on the Upper East Side.   Just mention Zabar’s and Manhattanites begin to salivate.  Eli Zabar, son of Louis and Lillian Zabar of the legendary Upper West Side market and deli, has built his own food empire on the Upper East.  Beginning in 1973 with EAT, it was followed in 1993 by Eli’s Vinegar Factory (and later Taste and WINE).  Way ahead of his time, back in 1995, Eli LOOKED UP and took on the personal challenge to use roof space and heat generated from the bread baking ovens on top of his gourmet grocery store to grow great tomatoes year-round.  A city boy, Eli had never farmed before and – no surprise – made plenty of mistakes along the way, including using treated (and therefore toxic) wood for his raised beds.  Along the way, he learned more and more, fixed his initial mistakes and persisted in his roof farm project. After experimenting with manual pollination with a vibrator (no kidding!), he learned to use bees for pollinating his tomatoes.  He started off with a $1,900 hoop house (plastic wrapped around bended PVC pipes to keep the heat in) and now has 20,000 square feet of glass greenhouses imported from Holland and two people whose job it is to farm this 1/2 acre urban rooftop farm. Beyond heirloom tomatoes, Eli grows lettuces, strawberries, herbs, carrots, etc., and has fig trees on the third floor roof of what was Manhattan’s last working vinegar and mustard factory on E. 91st Street between 1st Ave and York.   Eli Zabar After the talk, I introduced myself to Mr. Zabar, told him about Looking Up With Leslie, and asked if I could tour his roof farm.  He said of course! I should just call his roof farm manager and schedule a visit so there will soon be a follow-up post to share that delightful experience with you.

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