Innovation meets entrepreneurship on the roof of Eli Zabar’s The Vinegar Factory on E. 91st Street between 1st Avenue and York. Eli Zabar’s bread making ovens are spewing out heat 24 hours a day. His large roof has full sun. Put the two together, along with a few greenhouses, some upstate New York organic soil (obtained through barter for Eli’s bread), a few heirloom seedlings and, voila, you have the $10 like-nothing-you’ve-ever-tasted-before tomato, grown completely organically on the roof of the New York City store where it is sold. Amazing! There are also wonderful salad greens, little sweet French strawberries, and – get this – at least 80 lush fig trees. All organic, all delicious and all happily producing healthy food for sale in the gourmet market, cafe and restaurant downstairs.
Monica, Eli’s right hand roof farm man, took us on an extensive tour, explaining the trial and error process of learning how to roof farm. She explained that everything, even pest control, is natural on this roof. All (except the rosemary) is grown from seed. Bees are imported to take care of pollination. Special mites are brought in via mail order to biologically get rid of harmful pest infestations, and when anything at all doesn’t look just right, the plant is yanked out and taken to the experts at Cornell who diagnose the problem and suggest solutions. They even compost on this roof, carefully controlling what goes in the mixture to create the right nutrients for the tomatoes and other roof produce.
Ten dollars for a tomato may sound like a lot, but once you see the care and technical expertise that goes into producing this tomato, and how delicious it is, having been grown in soil (Eli purposefully avoids hydroponics believing that food grown in soil simply has to taste better!), you will not regret the price for even one delicious bite.
Eli Zabar was certainly LOOKING UP when he began his roof farm in the 1990s. In turn, I think we all can LOOK UP to Eli Zabar for inspiration on how to create a profitable business that is healthy, enjoyable, good for New York City and good for us!