Moving dirt up high pays off for all flavor of business

FROM THE GROUND, UP: Matthew Varga, executive chef at Gracie’s, tends to the restaurant’s rooftop garden on the nearby Peerless Lofts building. / PBN PHOTO/BRIAN MCDONALD
FROM THE GROUND, UP: Matthew Varga, executive chef at Gracie’s, tends to the restaurant’s rooftop garden on the nearby Peerless Lofts building. / PBN PHOTO/BRIAN MCDONALD

When this ole’ world seems too full of concrete and traffic, some Rhode Island businesses are taking to the roof for green space ambiance for lunch, for insulation to help cut energy costs in half and for growing vegetables for a downtown restaurant that spotlights locally sourced culinary creations.

“We grow Johnny-jump-up, also known as viola. They make amazingly beautiful garnishes. It’s like a small pansy with purple, yellow and white,” said Matthew Varga, executive chef at Gracie’s in Providence. “Nasturtium adds a nice, peppery bite to salad and beautiful colors.”

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Varga is also a passionate urban farmer for the restaurant’s vegetable garden on the rooftop of Westminster Lofts’ Peerless Building, conveniently near Gracie’s. That’s the way it was planned – garden-to-table, as fresh as the 3 p.m. harvesting to the 5 p.m. opening for dinner.

“It’s fresh as fresh can be. The various herbs – thyme, rosemary, lavender – they’re all picked the day they’re used and the flavors are so intense,” said Varga.

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In the Ocean State, a listing of green roof projects on the University of Rhode Island’s stormwater solutions website include a health care corporation, small businesses, schools, a luxury hotel and nonprofits.

For Gracie’s, the investment in the 1000-square-foot, trapezoid-shaped rooftop garden, and the daily labor by Varga and others on the staff, pays off.

“Edible flowers and herbs alone can be very expensive. You can pay up to $25 a tray,” said Varga. “I probably pull twice that much out of the garden on a daily basis.”

Gracie’s sends out garden-fresh social media messages.

“We stay up-to-date on Facebook on what’s coming out of the garden,” said Varga. “If we have something growing in the garden, we’ll write a menu item that features it.”

“Cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, summer squash, winter squash, tomatoes – 18 varieties of tomatoes,” said Varga. “Chard, collard greens, kale, about six kinds of lettuce, at least.”

The rewards carry over to increasing the attraction of leasing and living in the Peerless Building, said Westminster Lofts Property Manager Lindsey Hahn.

“It’s definitely something our leasing agents mention. It’s a cool feature and people are kind of [impressed] when we bring them up to the roof garden and show off the space. We have a sitting area and tables,” said Hahn. ”When there’s an overabundance, the restaurant leaves baskets with vegetables for the residents. They love it.”

The real estate company that owns Westminster Lofts also owns the building where Gracie’s restaurant is located, said Hahn. The restaurant doesn’t pay for the rooftop garden space.

“This was the newest rehab,” Hahn said of the Peerless Building work done about eight years ago. “The architect thought it would be great to have a rooftop deck and the first year or two we just had a bed with low-maintenance plants. Then Gracie’s inquired about the vegetable garden, and we thought it was a great idea.”

Designing in a green roof from the start of construction is the way to go, said Victor Bell, president of Environmental Packaging International in Jamestown.

When the company constructed a new building in 2010, a green roof for insulation was one of the energy-saving features.

The design was also built on the foundation of Bell’s experience in environmental work. He is a former chief of the Office of Environmental Coordination for the R.I. Department of Environmental Management and designed the original recycling program in Rhode Island, the first statewide recycling program in the country. So it was natural for him to create a model, energy-saving workspace.

“We have the two green roofs, geothermal for heat and AC, and 24 solar panels,” said Bell.

“We’ve got 12 people here in a 3,400-square-foot building. Our total energy cost in the summer is less than $100 a month. In winter, maybe no more than $200 a month,” said Bell.

“We have eight tons of soil on the two roofs. It’s taken very little work to maintain. We have green plants and some small flowers – yellow, red and purple flowers,” said Bell. •

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