Gary Waldron's Slum-Grown Herbs Make a Mint and Turn the South Bronx Urbanscape from Gray to Green
With its burned-out buildings, rubble-strewn lots and vicious criminals, the South Bronx has long been the epitome of urban blight. Now it’s also the place where Manhattan’s finest chefs get their freshest herbs. Each week GLIE Farms, an innovative herb nursery that sits on a one-square city block near a run-down schoolhouse and three storefront churches, supplies more than 1,000 pounds of herbs to 300 of New York’s top restaurants and hotels. The chef at Lutèce has a standing order of chervil and tarragon at GLIE. It is also where the chef at Le Cirque buys his nasturtium, the exotic yellow and tangerine flower used to garnish foie gras and salads. Lawrence Forgione, owner of the fashionable An American Place restaurant, rhapsodizes, “I can’t purchase better quality herbs anywhere.”
GLIE (pronounced glee) Farms is the creation of Gary Waldron, 42, a former IBM controller who grew up in the South Bronx, the son of a steelworker. In 1979 he returned to his hometown on a community-service leave from IBM to oversee the Group Live-In Experience (GLIE), a nonprofit organization for homeless youths founded in 1968. With a $100,000 federal grant Waldron leased a city lot and bought shovels, picks, hammers and wheelbarrows. Within six months his crew of 10 disadvantaged youngsters and community residents had turned a garbage-filled eyesore into a thriving garden. In 1980, when Waldron returned to IBM, he was promoted to a new $60,000-a-year position in charge of planning for the Americas and the Far East. But his experience in the South Bronx had soured his corporate ambition, and six days later he quit. “At IBM I was an invisible man in a big company,” he explains. “Security wasn’t as important to me as a challenge.” Taking a $40,000 pay cut, he returned to the South Bronx and became the full-time president of GLIE Farms. “It meant no summer camp for the kids and no savings, and my wife had to go back to work,” he says.
With about $100,000 in bank loans, foundation funds and federal grants, Waldron leased additional lots, built greenhouses, hired a horticulturist and expanded his staff to include local welfare mothers and laid-off factory workers. They planted tomatoes, watermelons and cucumbers. It wasn’t easy. “This wasn’t like growing corn in Kansas,” says Kevin Shank, 33, the horticulturist at the time. “We were working a farmland of fertile concrete.” Nevertheless, despite poor light caused by the shadows from adjacent tenements and pollution from cars traveling the nearby Cross-Bronx Expressway, the plants thrived. “It was as if the site were somehow blessed,” says Shank.
Soon after they started selling their produce in New York City’s open-air markets, Waldron and his crew noticed that fresh herbs were top sellers. Waldron asked his former secretary at IBM, Jean Lobasso, 48, to find out which herbs were in greatest demand. Lobasso learned that most of the fresh herbs so essential for nouvelle cuisine were virtually nonexistent in New York. Many chefs had been growing their own or using dried herbs. So GLIE abandoned vegetable growing and switched to herbs. Today the firm grows 32 different varieties. Dressed in business suits and carrying their herbs in shoe boxes, Waldron and Lobasso (she joined the company full-time in January, 1981) peddled their products by knocking on the back doors of Manhattan’s fanciest restaurants.’ The response was overwhelming. “We couldn’t get fresh herbs like this anywhere else,” says Lutèce owner Andre Soltner.
By late 1981 the company seemed headed for financial success, but before GLIE could show a profit, it’s grant money ran out. It wasn’t until a year later, however, that Waldron called a meeting and told his staff of 25 that he couldn’t continue paying them. “I felt I’d let down my family, my workers and myself,” he recalls. For nearly another year the farm managed to fill orders with just three employees. Waldron, Shank and Lobasso grew, cut and sold the herbs and made deliveries themselves. Waldron used his savings and Lobasso sold her life insurance policy to make ends meet.
Then the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey rescued GLIE Farms. Impressed by what Waldron had done on a shoestring budget, Port Authority officials agreed to invest $1 million in a hydroponic greenhouse. (Hydroponic plants are grown in nutrient-soaked mediums like rock wool.) The money, says Waldron, “was more than I’d ever dreamed of.”
The state-of-the-art greenhouse began operating last spring, and by the end of this year Waldron expects sales to exceed $1 million. He now has 32 employees—90 percent are from the South Bronx—and takes home a salary of $40,000 a year.
These days Waldron supervises long-term planning for the firm, while Lobasso is in charge of daily operations. GLIE, which now supplies herbs to restaurants around the country, is planning to start a 200-acre herb farm in Puerto Rico and has already begun marketing a retail line of herbs in supermarkets. The firm’s impact on the South Bronx, meanwhile, has been incalculable, if mainly symbolic: GLIE’s success has proved that a business can survive in a slum, and it has given hope to the citizens of this depressed neighborhood.
Success hasn’t changed Waldron’s life-style. He still lives in a modest coop in Queens with his wife, Diane, two sons and daughter, and works out of a rickety South Bronx office, once occupied by squatters. Nor has success gone to his palate. “When Gary takes his family out to dinner, they usually end up at Wendy’s,” laughs Lobasso, who is married and the mother of four children. “His favorite herbs are still in a bottle of ketchup.”