Five-thirty a.m. and the moon is setting over a dark huddle of warehouses just east of Bayshore, fat and golden as a pomelo. Chilled and blurry with sleep on this corner of Jerrold Avenue, our small group of food writers is barely awake, unused to starting the day by moonset. But there’s no time to lose, no time for coffee: just like the moon, the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market is winding down its day. Trucks that arrived at sunset the previous night, full of lettuces and green beans, clementines and kumquats, have already unloaded their hauls at some two dozen produce distributors and headed back on the road. After the distributors made their choices and unpacked their wares, the buyers arrived.
While you were sleeping or dancing, drinking or downloading, buyers from Bi-Rite, Canyon Market, Good Life, Berkeley Bowl, Rainbow Grocery and hundreds of corner groceries and fresh produce stores all around the city spent the dark hours in close communion with the food you’ll be eating today, judging and bargaining for the best deals, the best stuff at the best price.
Those imported asparagus, those young coconuts from Thailand, that stiffly frilled kale and fuschia-stemmed chard grown in Winters or Watsonville, even those edible flowers babied in a backyard in Oakland: do you think about how they get to the shelves of Mollie Stone’s or onto your $11 salad in the Marina or $18 pizza in the Mission? More than likely, they came through the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, a hodgepodge cluster of warehouses, coolers and trucking bays stretched over old streetcar tracks and city streets in one of the city’s last rumbling, remaining districts of light industry.
It’s a working market that’s been part of the city’s fabric since the early 1960s, when the old downtown produce market was razed to make room for what’s now the Embarcadero complex. Working with the city, the vendors and merchants built a new market near where Bernal Heights flattened out past Bayshore, north of Silver Terrace not far from Bayview. Stretched over 20 acres, it provides over 650 jobs, fills more than 300,000 square feet of warehouse space and moves millions of dollars of food from growers to distributors to buyers annually.
And yet, few San Franciscans know of it. In full swing at 2 or 3 in the morning, it’s as busy as a trading floor, where food is nourishment but also product, colorful money stacked up in the shape of snow peas and eggplants, radishes and apples. It’s not a place for civilians, this daunting maze of trucks and loading bays: Stand still for a moment, anywhere, and you’re bound to be in several someones’ way as they barrel past you, pushing a hand cart or manuveuring a forklift stacked high with boxes—oversized red peppers from Mexico, maybe, big and shiny as shoes, or bristling bunches of parsley, dozens to a case.
Luckily, our group is here under the guidance of general manager Michael Janis and customer liaison/business development representative Eddie Kapper, both genial, dedicated, fast-moving men who slide through the market as if they’re strolling through their offices, greeting workers by name, stopping to exchange a few words, shaking hands with buyers. The market is made up of more than 2 dozen independent businesses, each with its own specialty, many still family run. There’s Washington Vegetable, carrying a full line of vegetables but specializing in greens. Earl’s Organic Produce, in business since the 1970s, selling only organic produce from its spacious new warehouse, where the coolers are adjusted to the optimal needs of the produce: one cold and moist, another cold and dry. Bananas need one temperature, Meyer lemons another. Whole Foods has its own huge warehouse here, which it has since outgrown; it’s moving to a new, dedicated distribution facility in Richmond soon. Some businesses, like Yuet Cheong Produce, focus on the Asian market, others in Latino products.
We skirt around an impromptu wall of limes in ten-pound boxes, hustle past a levee of net sacks, fifty pounds each of red onions and yellow onions, hefty potatoes destined for French-fry cutters from the Excelsior to the Richmond. At Cook’s Company and Greenleaf, the boxes are smaller, the products—edible flowers, exotic mushrooms—daintier. The clientele here are chefs, caterers, and artisans, who buy in smaller quantities and are notoriously picky about quality and consistency.
Here, not everyone comes with a truck. As we walk through, a trio of young men—caterers from the East Bay–are packing the back of a black Mini Cooper with pillowcase-sized bags of greens until every inch is stuffed like a clown car. At another loading bay, a smiling young woman named Fontaine McFadden is loading boxes into the back of her car. She hands us a card for her three-month-old venture, Strong Table, a paleo-diet meal delivery.
It’s a tricky business, dealing in perishables. In a thick blue sweatshirt, hands sheathed in heavy rubber gloves, a worker scoops crushed ice like snow over waxy boxes lettered in red Chinese characters. Broccoli likes it cold. Leave it too warm and the stems grow rubbery, tight blue-green florets yawning into tiny yellow flowers no one will buy. Brassicas like these–Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli–are the greens of winter. Cabbage will grow through snow. A good frost sweetens the kale crop, nature producing its own antifreeze in the leaves. Aphids, always a plague for organics with nooks and crannies, don’t survive in the cold.
Selling wholesale like this isn’t for every farmer. Earl’s owner Earl Herrick, just back from visiting an avocado and citrus grower in the Pauma Valley, lays out what a distributor needs: quality, consistency, and reliable supply. He liked the man’s fruit, he tells us, but his avocados were too small, his grapefruits not heavy enough.
Boxes are packed and labeled by size, and every piece inside has to meet a certain standard. A 20-count peach is one size, a 16-count another, and they can’t go in the same box. Pieces that are too small or too light risk getting the whole box “kicked,” or sent back on the truck to the farmer. There’s also a matter of shelf life. Selling wholesale means the product has to last at least a week off the farm–a day or two for packing and shipping, another day or two on site at the warehouse, a day or two in the market, then however long the customer waits to use it once she gets it home.
Finally we step out of the way of the hand trucks and forklifts into the J&V Café, the last remaining restaurant in the market, for coffee to warm our chilly hands. Started by a pair of former market workers, it opens at 1am, closes at 10am. Once, the market had bars, a hofbrau, more restaurants. They’re gone now, swallowed up by the need for more space for vendors. Even the J&V is two businesses now, market workers’ café by night, catering kitchen by day. By daybreak, even as the café empties out, the big back kitchen is in full swing, busy prepping meals for businesses downtown, paper orders for banks, tech firms and brokerages taped to the wall. A man fills bowls with identical cubes of melon in tri-colored rows. A row of women are making dozens of sandwiches, lining them up on plastic trays.
The market’s moving with the times. It’s just signed a new 60-year lease with the city. There are long-term, multi-million-dollar reinvestment and capital improvement plans in development, focusing on a complete overhaul and rebuilding of the vendor spaces, with a lot more room and more up-to-date, energy-efficient cooling facilities.
As the new cottage food law comes into effect, Kapper tells us how he hopes more small food businesses will see the market as a resource. Every day, says Eddie, he gets calls from people wanting to start up some kind of new business—niche caterers, jam or salsa makers, someone with a great idea for an herb salt or a juice-cleanse biz. He’ll talk to any potential new clients, walk them through, introduce them to the right vendors, try to get them what they need from the market.
It’s part of a vision of community revitalization for Earl Shaddix, too. A longtime member of the San Francisco professional food community as a chef and trainer for All-Clad Metalcrafters, Shaddix recently bought a house in Bayview, and has organized this morning’s walkabout as a way to bring attention to the area’s businesses, and to work on how community residents can take advantage of the market’s offerings to start their own small food businesses. He hopes to start a series of free food-business classes for people in the surrounding neighborhoods. He’d also like to encourage food makers around the city to start renting their kitchen space in the southeastern end of the city, where commercial rents are still reasonable.
By now, the sun’s up. Pushing brooms, men at the end of their shifts sweep wilted lettuce into green bins. (The market has one of the city’s highest levels of waste-diversion compliance, with a composting program for green waste and a recycling program for nearly everything else it uses, from cardboard and shrink wrap down to the tough plastic straps used to bundle stacks of boxes together.) At Whole Foods, at Safeway, the day’s produce is arranged in shiny stacks. The misting jets come on, hissing gently. On Jerrold Avenue, it’s quiet, until the sun goes down and the trucks arrive again, disgorging what will feed the city.