Robert Urban plucks a little leaf off the sorrel next to his feet.
The herb tastes tantalizingly tart. Like a lemon.
Next, he offers a stevia leaf, a sweet counterpoint.
Nearly everything in Robert’s 2,000-square-foot garden, which has 100 varieties of vegetables and herbs, is edible.
Much of what Robert grows, in a rented plot behind an attached row house and in a smaller space that are right by his apartment, is used to produce his line of organic, cold-pressed green-leaf juices that he calls The Highest Good.
(He gives the excess cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and other vegetables to what he calls his extended family, which, as it turns out, is everyone in the neighborhood who asks him for produce.)
Robert harvests the leaves, – and sometimes adds store-bought greens like kale – extracts their juices, pours them into glass bottles and personally delivers them via bicycle to some three dozen health-conscious customers in Manhattan. Any excess juice is fed to the plants.
“Green-leaf vegetables are the most nutritious nature provides,” he says. “There is no one else making a juice that is made primarily from green leaves because of the economic hurdles.”
The Highest Good, which is named for the expression coined by the Roman philosopher Cicero, also has another distinction: At $13 to $18 per 17-ounce jar, the custom concoctions are the most expensive juices in the city.
Although Robert, aka Rob the Gardener, started cultivating his business over a decade ago when he moved to Astoria, he’s had a lifelong interest in health, medicine and nutrition.
“Everyone in my family is an MD,” he says, adding that neither he nor his sister carried on the tradition. “I was frowned upon for not taking that route, but in a sense, I’m doing something similar to medicine in a preventative sense – food will be thy medicine.”
Robert’s family left Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, to escape communism after he graduated from first grade. They settled in Chicago, where Robert’s grandfather, who, of course, was a doctor, lived and where Robert stayed until he went to college.
He had ambitions to be a lawyer, so he majored in political science and philosophy at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. He also played a lot of tennis.
“It was a small school – nobody else was studying philosophy, so there were eight kids per class,” he says. “It was 180 miles from Chicago – not too far from home and not too close.”
Upon graduation, Robert decided to move to Manhattan with no particular plan in mind other than to see where destiny would lead him.
Robert, who has chiseled features, shoulder-length undulating locks, sparkling white teeth and magnificent muscles, made his living (barely) by modeling. He also toyed with the idea of acting.
After three years, he left for Los Angeles.
“I wanted to try another big American city while I was young,” he says.
It was there that he became conscious of the vegan culture.
He made his living as a personal trainer and started making healthy shakes.
“People kept telling me that I should go into the health-food business,” he says.
When he moved back to New York three years later and his modeling career ended with the 2007-09 recession, he decided to concentrate on cultivating not only his garden but also his mind and body, which means lifting weights and running several miles a day in addition to biking over the Triborough to Manhattan to make deliveries.
“I have a strong inner need to be active,” he says. “Healthy food provides me with the fuel to do this.”
Robert, who has only one employee, a bottle washer, sometimes works from dawn to dusk.
It is crucial, he says, that the juices be delivered fresh.
“Although they will keep up to five days because of the proprietary process I use, I deliver them four hours after the ingredients are harvested,” he says.
At one time, Robert’s juice business was much larger, complete with a commercial kitchen, but he has deliberately scaled back. He’s writing a new, more ambitious business plan.
“I believe in pacing myself,” he says, adding that he wants continuous rather than casual customers.
“It’s not a race,” he says. “I will launch with the help of others.”
Robert, who punctuates his pronouncements with quotes from Plato and Aristotle, sees his juices as a way to get people to like eating fresh vegetables.
As bees dance around the sunflowers, he talks about building a community of growers in the metro area and founding a movement to promote the use of glass bottles and healthy eating and living. And he wants to create products that, unlike his current ones, have practical price points.
It is, he knows, a tall order. One man, one company, he says, can get the ball rolling.
He spies a ripened cucumber and seizes the opportunity to pick it.
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019.
Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling