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Feb 012010
 

By Sommer Saadi
Green Right Now

New Yorkers have gotten pretty good at finding new places to grow plants: rooftops in Brooklyn, abandoned rail lines in Manhattan, and now they’re conquering the tops of old shipping containers.

At least Roberta’s pizzeria in Bushwick, Brooklyn is giving it a shot. The pizzeria is housed in a former garage and tucked between rows of old, gritty warehouses and industrial factories. The wood-paneled walls match the wood picnic-styled tables, and prominently placed at the front of the restaurant is the bright red, wood-burning oven duly named Roberta.

Roberta's, a no-frills pizzeria (Photo: Sommer Saadi.)

Roberta's, a no-frills pizzeria (Photo: Sommer Saadi.)

But in the back yard is where they keep the main attraction.

Just outside of this one-year-old restaurant sit two 8 by 20 feet containers — the ones you see cruising on highways behind 18-wheelers. On the inside they house the Heritage Radio Network, an Internet-based radio station with programming that focuses on the local food movement. But on top, the containers have been turned into beds of greens, vegetables and herbs that are used inside the kitchen to make, amongst other menu items, Roberta’s acclaimed Neapolitan pizzas.

Through the double doors and around the restaurant’s outdoor picnic tables, a staircase leads up to the first container, covered in PVC and Visqueen plastic (there are plans to add bubble wrap for greater insulation). Still, the cold winter keeps the soil frozen and most everything but perennial herbs from growing.

Herb and veggie beds at Roberta's backyard, rooftop garden (Photo: Sommer Saadi.)

Herb and veggie beds at Roberta's backyard, rooftop garden (Photo: Sommer Saadi.)

In the connecting container, however, spinach starts and salad greens are holding out in a slightly warmer climate. The container is positioned right above the restaurant’s air compressor that is attached to its walk-in cooler, and the hot air pumped out by the big, cold storage unit is harnessed and used to heat the green house.

But even in the warmer months, admits garden manager Gwen Schantz, the restaurant only gets about 20 percent of its ingredients from Roberta’s garden and from a backyard garden at a friend’s home about five blocks away. Schantz estimates that the Roberta’s garden produced about 200 pounds of food last season. The restaurant goes through thousands of pounds a month.

“We have delivered a stack of boxes of vegetables each day,” Schantz explains, “and you just can’t produce that amount of vegetables here all year round, every day.”

“Maybe if this,” she motions to the entire backyard, “was all one big greenhouse.”

But even if the garden doesn’t grow 100 percent of the ingredients needed for the hot spot’s menu, the garden still makes Roberta’s special. And being special is important in a city flooded with places to buy a slice.

“In the summer our customers will come and lunch and bring their kids into the greenhouse and walk around and take pictures,” Schantz explains. “It’s an attraction and in that sense it adds value to the restaurant.”

The majority of rooftop projects commissioned by members of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a 10-year-old Toronto-based association that claims more than 5,000 members, have a commercial or selling component. But as founder and president Steven Peck explains, it’s the sense of community they build that offers the greatest benefit.

Creating a community was a motivating factor for Roberta’s owners Chris Parachini and Brandon Hoy when they started the garden last April. It attracted a lot of partners and investors that helped the restaurant get going. An initial investment of $1,000 from Bay Area local food icon Alice Waters sealed the deal.

Now, after one season of trial and error with the crops, the restaurateurs are pushing to make the garden investment profitable.

Roberta's rooftop enterprise uses all available space (Photo: Sommer Saadi.)

Roberta's rooftop enterprise uses all available space (Photo: Sommer Saadi.)

By planting perennial herbs, which tend to be more expensive per pound at the farmer’s market, the restaurant is saving on supply costs. The operators also are saving on waste removal costs, which are determined by the weight of the trash. Instead of hauling food scraps to a dump site, they are composted and used as fertilizer for the garden. Even the kitchen grease, which can be expensive to dispose of, is recycled by a company that turns it into bio-diesel.

Space is a big obstacle for the garden, but after acquiring a neighboring lot and with plans in the works to acquire another building for a potential bakery and chicken coop, the restaurant operators know they have room to grow.

On the new lot Schantz is creating what she calls a “modular” farm. Because the restaurant sometimes hosts large events like concerts, banquets and weddings, the new space needs to be versatile. Rather than lay down soil into big, stationary beds, Roberta’s acquired 200 large plastic bins from an old brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that it will fill with organic compost soil from Long Island.

“In one bed we’ll plant herbs, another tomatoes, maybe in one a tree,” Schantz said. “We’re turning the space into a flexible, modular garden that can be pushed back if we need it to.”

She’s excited to get the plans moving.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network