Founder Friday: Michael Zak, Gro-operative

Aquaponics involves raising fish and growing plants in the same environment and having them feed off of one another. The fish waste serves as organic food for the plants to grow, and the plants naturally filter water for the fish to thrive in. It is both a cost-effective and symbiotic method of farming, and is perfect for a climate like Buffalo – where outdoor conditions aren’t always conducive to growing fresh produce.

Gro-operative sells fish and vegetables to local co-ops and restaurants, and uses their expertise to educate high school students about urban farming and entrepreneurship. They were one of the $100,000 grand prize winners at the Ignite Buffalo finals, and are even partnering with fellow Ignite winner Groundwork Market Garden to develop an educational program for at-risk youth.

Learn more about aquaponics and Gro-operative’s innovative and environmentally conscious way of farming in today’s Founder Friday!

Tell us the story of how your business got started.

I was looking for a way to effect change in Buffalo when I graduated from UB with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, and wanted to create an environmentally sustainable business that also respected workers’ rights. I came across an article about an organization in Chicago called The Plant (http://plantchicago.org/). The Plant is a non profit that created a food hub in an old meat packing plant; it had multiple food production businesses that used the waste from each business to power the other ones. The energy for electricity and heat were also powered by waste via an anaerobic digestor. This initiative inspired me to create a similar venture in Buffalo. I hosted a meeting for anyone who was interested in realizing this dream and 50 people showed up! We began to meet weekly as a steering committee and initially decided to start a worker-owned cooperative that had three primary businesses: aquaponics, gourmet mushrooms, and a brewery.

As we condensed the group down to people who actually wanted to put down money and work to see this happen, we incorporated in late 2013 with 6 people. Throughout the next year we split into groups that wanted to lead each of the three businesses, and the aquaponics team started building its first system. As time went on, the people leading the other teams left for different reasons but aquaponics remained.

In the following years, the three of us remaining put a ton of our own money and time into the venture while working full-time jobs. Eventually one of the worker owners became a father and had to drop out for his family, and the other was offered a high-paying job in the hydroponics industry in Maine. At this point, I was the only one left standing. In light of all the hard work and money that had been spent to get this far, my wife Megan McNally and mom Peachy Zak decided to become worker owners to keep this dream alive. Since then we have been steadily growing in size and demand.

What do you do? Your business?

Gro-op is an aquaponic vertical farm that grows fresh produce and protein year round in Buffalo, NY. We grow fish and plants in a soil-less system where the fish waste is used as fertilizer for the plants. We grow indoors so we control the temperature, wind, and the climate as a whole, creating the perfect growing conditions. Our method of agriculture uses 90% less water and 80% less nutrients than conventional soil farmers use to grow the same amount of produce. We are also working towards closed-loop sustainability, where we use compostable waste from local grocery stores to feed our fish and as renewable energy for our power.

We are also starting an at-risk youth training program that will teach people ages 18-30 about urban agriculture, cooperative economics, aquaponics, and food-related careers. We look to begin this program next year in partnership with African Heritage Food Co-op and Groundwork Market Garden.

We currently sell fresh basil, arugula, collards, kale, rainbow chard, lettuces, micro-greens, koi, and tilapia. You can buy our products at Lexington Cooperative Markets, East Aurora Cooperative Market, African Heritage Food Co-op, Jay’s Artisan Pizzeria, 100 Acres at Hotel Henry, Melting Point, Seneca Niagara Casino Restaurants, and Fresh Fix.

What has been the biggest accomplishment for your business to-date?

Our biggest accomplishment to date was winning the grand prize at the Ignite Buffalo business competition. Although the funding is great, we really cherish being recognized by the Buffalo business community for our accomplishments.

Goals for the next year? Three years?

  1. Move to our new bigger space at the Niagara Frontier Food Terminal to expand our operation
  2. Complete our capital campaign to raise $100K through selling Class B preferred shares
  3. Hire 5 worker owners
  4. Train 100 youth and empower them to start their own business or help them gain employment
  5. Expand our customer base into multiple anchor institutions (universities, schools, hospitals)
  6. Have 100% renewable energy powering our facility

Why Buffalo?

We were born and raised in Buffalo. It is our home and our duty to make it the best it can be!

Share some ways that you give back to the local community – and how others can get involved.

We believe that all youth should have the same opportunity to flourish, regardless of the hand they’ve been dealt. We partner with Maryvale High School and offer occupational skills training to their mentally and physically disabled students. We work with Buffalo Public School #30 to teach aquaponics in their after-school program. We also strive towards food desert elimination by partnering with the African Heritage Economic Initiative and African Heritage Food Co-op on different projects to create grocery stores in Buffalo that are owned by the people in their neighborhood.

If people would like to volunteer or partner on these initiatives they can contact us at [email protected]. If anyone has ideas for new projects or already has a project that they would like to partner with us on they should contact us as well!

Who has been your biggest motivator through the ups and downs of owning a small business?

I had a tremendous mentor named Kelly Maurer. She was a giant in the Buffalo co-op movement and social justice world. She helped and advised me for years on many things, especially Gro-op. Unfortunately she passed away unexpectedly 2 years ago, which has been a tragic loss to our community – but I know that she is still rooting for me wherever she is.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Being an entrepreneur requires an unhealthy amount of optimism. There will be many people that will say you won’t make it or try to bring you down along your journey. Just know that when someone else doesn’t believe in your innovative idea that you are on the right track! All great trendsetters and paradigm shifters were told their idea won’t work because it challenges the status quo. Those were the people that made the best leaps forward in their industry.

Some say that a successful business is a combination of intelligence, hard work, and luck. What I’ve found to be the most contributing factor to success is grit. The ability to take all the lumps life will give you and push on while all of your peers give up is the key. Every business goes through ups and downs, some worse than others. You have to be the unrelenting force that never gives up, but is wise enough to pivot when needed.