A Year That Will Never Be Forgotten

Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Produce Business.

I have often thought of my father, Stephen D’Arrigo, these past 18 years since his passing. He was a wise, quiet and mature man who taught almost exclusively by example. He is the reason our great company exists. His fingerprints are everywhere: from our shippers to our customers, from the size and make-up of our facility to how we treat our personnel, from the preponderance of wood paneling in our hallways to the shrine that was once his office. Lastly and most importantly, Dad left us a legacy of honesty and integrity.

But over this past year, amidst this pandemic, my thoughts stray more and more to my 95-year old mother, Mary Jane D’Arrigo. She lived a very difficult early life, like many who were a part of the “greatest generation.” She was three-years-old when the Great Depression hit. She lived through it as a young farm girl in upstate New York and was 15 when the U.S. entered WWII. Hardship and want were personally acquainted with her; something she will never forget, could not forget.

She used to tell me the thing she remembered most from her childhood was always being cold. From this, she would preach to her children about thankfulness and gratitude, about humility and generosity. I have been struck many times this year by something she has often said to us growing up; quoted hundreds of times and still does to this day. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I felt disbelief as the pandemic unfolded. Disbelief led to uncertainty, and then to fear; gripping us all by varying degrees. Profound and total changes are adopted regarding how we think, move, travel, socialize, even dress and undress. The ubiquitous scoreboards on monitors everywhere tracked infections and death — like the ESPN of pandemic media, in case we were to forget and let our guards down… The spectacle of retail stores being picked clean, unable to keep the shelves stocked… business just too good… The opposite spectacle of empty or closed restaurants, and the countless other smaller business, also closed… And the millions of lost jobs… Business for some was not only bad, but evaporated… Walmart and Amazon booming… Size absolutely does matter when our government values our essentialness.

“There but for the grace of God go I.”

The Hunts Point Market is told we are essential by our New York City government landlords; we supply healthy produce to the consumer. Who knew? Nothing like a pandemic to illustrate the worth of the fresh produce distribution world! We are allowed to stay open. They are rooting for us! The public and the private sectors on the same page like never before, at least for now. The business at D’Arrigo New York was very bad in the back half of 2020, the worst in memory, but still, it could be worse. We are here; still standing.

Our company and all the businesses that make up the Market rise to the occasion. Masks, barriers, distancing and sanitization measures get the job done where many had doubts that it would. Our company and the Market transform seemingly overnight into as close to a COVID-proof facility as possible. Everyone should be immensely proud of this. From the drivers, warehousemen, buyers, salesmen, clerical, maintenance and security workers who go to work every day at the Market.

To our customers who come every day to the Market and to their customers downstream, staying viable and in operation is due in large part to the uninterrupted supply of fresh produce from the Market. When considering the pandemic, all of us in this resilient industry are equal partners in risk. COVID-19 was and is predominantly an equal opportunity virus.

Because of the pandemic, the demand for our philanthropic and charitable efforts became much greater than ever before. As jobs were lost, the need for donated food continuously grows. Organizations that we have donated to for decades were finding that they needed much more now. City Harvest, Brighter Bites, the Foodbanks of NYC and Westchester, to name a few, all were stretched to the breaking point.

Working with our city officials who know their communities better than anyone has become even more important. Through it all, with the help of our vendor community, we were happy to largely satisfy that demand to feed out-of-work New Yorkers. We are happy to be able do it and very fortunate and thankful to be in the position to do so.

Lately it seems that we are beginning to wake up from this yearlong nightmare. Getting back to normal will be a welcome process to say the least. For those of us fortunate enough to have never stopped commuting to jobs, the change will be mild. In the Hunts Point Market, perhaps just losing the mask is all anyone will have to do to feel normal again.

We are the lucky ones. The lost business will return slowly as the foodservice industry regains its footing. The City has been dealt a near lethal blow but she will come back. Those people who moved away may or may not return, but they most certainly will be replaced by “new” New Yorkers as has been the case for more than half a century.

Will things be the same ever again? No, not really. We have all been changed emotionally, spiritually, fundamentally; some of us more than others, and all of us in personal ways that are ours alone to experience and try to understand. Yet through it all is that shared common thread of community present as always during times of trouble. A year that will never be forgotten by any of us, endlessly chronicled, taught in schools, commemorated.

This was an event like the Great Depression or WWII. One that will finally help us all begin to understand what Mary Jane D’Arrigo meant: There but for the grace of God go all of us.

Excerpted from the Inaugural Issue of the D’Arrigo New York newsletter. Matthew D’Arrigo is CEO of D’Arrigo New York, a multi-generation full service wholesaler on the Hunts Point Market.