Attention Must Be Paid: The Passing of Mel Schwartz

Jim Prevor - The Fruits of Thought

Originally printed in the January 2022 issue of Produce Business.

In these pages, we’ve had the opportunity to showcase the great and powerful of the industry. To memorialize those whose work stood apart and transformed the industry. This is well and good and appropriate. Yet the truth is that such portrayals are deceptive. They give the false impression that only few great men and women built the industry. They place an emphasis on large businesses, when this is an industry composed of small businesses. They showcase the national and global, when the work is mostly done on a local scale.

Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, is arguably the greatest play of the 20th century, a literary and dramatic masterpiece. Willy Loman is the salesman, and in its most famous passage, his wife , Linda, speaks to her adult children. She makes the case that Willy Loman may not be heroic in the classic sense, but that he merited much esteem. He was, as she explained for the boys, “…a man who never worked a day but for your benefit. When does he get the medal for that?”

The name Mel Schwartz was whispered with reverence in this author’s home for an interesting reason. The Prevor family grew up around Coney Island, and Nathan’s Famous was the restaurant of choice. Its fame, of course, was hot dogs… President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to show the King and Queen of England what America was about, and he served them Nathan’s Famous hot dogs.

Their French Fries were famously always fresh, never frozen, and the potatoes, well, those came from Mel Schwartz at Dublin Produce on the Brooklyn Terminal Market.

When this author was a teenager working for my family business in Hunts Point, we were exporters selling mixed loads down to the Caribbean. One summer, I was sent to pick up coleslaw, potato salad and other “wet” salads from a company named Blue Ridge Farms in Brooklyn. I thought I might get my family some business and asked if we could give them a quote on cabbage that they were using to make the coleslaw. But I was quickly shot down, as the cabbage came from Mel Schwartz, and that relationship wasn’t going to change.

Though it may seem the produce industry is run by those who win awards at big national and global conventions, it is really built day to day by farmers, truckers, wholesalers, retailers and restaurant operators… by people like Mel Schwartz who got up every morning at 1:30 AM to be down on the market when the business was being done, when the produce could travel fresh, when the opportunity and obligation were there. Yet, still, he managed to be a dutiful husband and generous father.

Those who worked with him knew that he would speak the truth and try to do the right thing.

It was later in my life that I came to meet him through a serendipitous moment. My wife was taking my first-born son to Mommy and Me, and when she left the building, she happened to walk with another mother through the parking lot and noticed that she had a Florida Agriculture license plate — not all that common in Boca Raton. When the other mother explained that her husband worked in the produce industry, my wife said that he had to know her husband. The ladies made a dinner date, and I met Mel’s son, Andrew Schwartz, a vigorous produce entrepreneur in his own right. In time, Andrew introduced me to his Dad.

Mel Schwartz was not a talkative man but, I think, he felt comfortable with me because of my produce background. We talked about Joe Pellicone, who used to work for my family business and supplied Mel with many items. We shared produce lore, especially talking about Hymie Grappel of A&P Tiefer, who once helped my family sell a supermarket we owned to Waldbaum’s and had mentored Mel throughout his career. We talked about the history of produce wholesaling, terminal markets and the future of the industry. I introduced him to my wife and very young children.

Now, as I sit writing in my office, surveying plaques and trophies, mounted articles I’ve written for The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, I think that maybe the greatest honor I’ve won was when this hard-working man said to me that since he saw that his son and I had become friends, he knew Andrew would always have someone by his side who was both willing and capable of helping him, and he thanked me for that. What greater honor can a man give than to hope you will always be friends with his own son?

Mel Schwartz didn’t build a great empire. There are no monuments named after him. But he was an honorable man. Those who worked with him knew that he would speak the truth and try to do the right thing. He loved his family selflessly. Indeed, when Andrew announced he wanted to live a different life than the terminal market, thus ending Mel’s dream for the future of his company, it was Mel who, without hesitation, picked up the phone to call Bill Hearne and get him the first job to make that produce career possible.

The most famous passage in Death of a Salesman is spoken by Willy Loman’s wife when she explains that even if her husband would not be classically seen as a hero, there was a need for recognition and respect: “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

Funny enough, it is with a produce analogy that Willy Loman demands that same attention: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit.”