Washington D.C.-Baltimore Metro Area a sophisticated market with booming foodservice, yet economic inequality remains.
For more than 130 years, the Centre Market in Washington D.C. stood as a monument to a method of produce distribution that was once the norm throughout medium and large cities throughout the country.
At its peak, the market had 675 stalls and additional free space for vendors on the street, all on two acres between the White House and the Capitol that George Washington designated as ground for a public marketplace in 1797.
Farmers from nearby Maryland and Virginia brought their fruits, vegetables, eggs and milk for sale at the market every day. Numerous trolley lines ended at the Centre Market, which brought customers to buy furs and rugs, in addition to food.
In 1872, a two-story brick structure with superior cooling facilities replaced the original building put up early in the 19th century, then the new Centre Market was leveled in 1931 and the block became home for the National Archives.
THE MODERN PRODUCE HUB
Today, the produce supply chain hub for the 5.5 million residents of the D.C.-Baltimore metropolitan area is a modern produce distribution center in Jessup, MD.
The Maryland Food Center Authority oversees a terminal market facility, the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market, in Jessup that 30 wholesalers call home.
Location is the key to the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market, which is midway between D.C. and Baltimore, and offers retailers the convenience of one-stop shopping at nearly 30 wholesale operations. A few hundred yards from Interstate 95, the center offers easy access for trucks bringing in produce from the Southeast and the Mid-Atlantic.
While most wholesalers in Jessup, as in the rest of the country, serve major retailers largely by covering items in short supply, a few of the operations in Jessup have developed specialties that bring them year-round business.
“We do some fill-in, but we also do some value-added work for the supermarkets,” says John Gates, president of Lancaster Foods, Jessup, MD. “We do fresh cut and organic.”
John and his brother, Dave, started Lancaster Foods by sourcing produce and fresh flowers for retailers in their native Altoona, PA. They steadily grew their operation until Lancaster became a major regional produce wholesaler.
In Jessup, the company facility has 220,000 square feet of cold storage, nine ripening rooms, 28 shipping doors, modern fresh-cut equipment, and 700 employees. Sysco Foods of Houston, TX. became owners of Lancaster in February 2022 as part their acquisition of Coastal Companies.
The facility makes it possible for Lancaster to offer fresh-cut produce to retailers in D.C. and Baltimore, and throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. “A good portion of our fresh-cut, around 75%, is private label,” Gates says.
Lancaster has also carved out a role in supplying organic produce to retailers and helping them market it.
“We do more than just deliver organic crops, we have experienced merchandisers,’ Gates says.
And Lancaster continues to look for new opportunities. “We’re emphasizing local, and we’re emphasizing tropical,” Gates says.
Other wholesalers in Jessup have found new outlets as the large retailers rely on their distribution centers.
“We sell to the smaller stores like ShopRite, but we do more foodservice,” says Sean Floyd, director of produce at Capital Seaboard, Jessup, MD. “We develop more relationships and longevity with foodservice. With wholesale, they’ll drop you in a minute.”
Since 2009, Sun Belle Inc. has leased multiple stalls at the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market, and Janice Honigberg, who started Sun Belle, a fresh berries, and vegetables business, and has seen it grow along with the economy of the DC-Baltimore metropolitan area.
“Since I started business in 1986, D.C. has become a healthy, thriving market,” she says. “It is a sophisticated and well-developed market.”
“We source fruit from Mexico, Peru, Chile, and all over the U.S.,” Honigberg says. “We have distribution centers in Jessup, Chicago, Miami, Laredo, and Oxnard, CA.”We regularly work with our entire range of berries, including organics, to large retailers.”
THE MODERN INEQUALITY
Enslaved people have not been sold on the streets of Washington D.C. since 1862, but the city still has dramatic economic inequality and the differences are racial. In 2000, the median house cost $153,500, but by 2020 it jumped to $646,500. At the other end of the spectrum, the poverty rate in Washington DC is 13.5%, and it is more than five times as much for black than white residents.
There is a similar story in nearby Baltimore, MD, where 61.9% of the population is black and black residents are two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to live in poverty.
The wealthy suburbs near Washington D.C. tell a different story. The Virginia counties of Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington, and the Virginia city of Falls Church, are among those within commute range of the District, as is Howard County in Maryland. All five of these locales are among the seven wealthiest in the country as measured by median income, showing that the federal government trails only high tech as a road to wealth.
Bronx, NY-based Baldor Specialty Foods opened a location at the Jessup facility a decade ago.
“The area has a blend of tourists and seasonal visitors as well as a concentration of restaurants serving various demographics,” says Bill Hodge, general manager at Baldor DC. “D.C., northern Virginia and Baltimore all service a mid- to high-level income individual. The area is diverse in ethnicity and well-traveled clients who understand, appreciate and consume a variety of ingredients.”
Honigberg does not sell to restaurants, but has seen some of her wholesaler customers enjoy the development of a flourishing foodservice sector throughout the DC-Baltimore metro area.
“I sell to wholesalers who sell to restaurants,” she says. “The area has developed a thriving restaurant scene. It’s a vibrant market.”
After suffering from closures during the pandemic, restaurant sales in the metropolitan area came roaring back in 2021. Total restaurant sales in the area on March 1, 2021, were up more than 150% year over year, according to restaurant analytics and software firm Margin Edge, and were even up slightly over pre-pandemic levels. The comeback was even more pronounced at full-service restaurants, which enjoyed a 250% year-over-year increase in March 2021, while fast casual restaurant sales were up a more modest 100%.
MARKETS A ‘DESTINATION’
The country’s largest public market is located on the site where Lexington Market has served downtown Baltimore for more than two centuries. “The immediate neighborhood surrounding Lexington Market is mixed-income and diverse,” says Cherrie Woods, director of marketing and communications at Lexington Market. “There are limited sources of fresh food in the neighborhood — corner stores and one small grocery store — Streets Market.”
Since October 2022, the revitalized Lexington Market has served Baltimore’s food desert. “We are in a food priority area,” says Woods. The remodeled market has 49 stalls for merchants, and an additional 12 kiosks, directly serving the public. This historical site also still attracts legions of tourists.
“Lexington Market has been a central gathering place for two centuries,” says Woods. “As a result, its reputation has spread beyond Baltimore City. Many tourists consider Lexington Market a ‘must see’ on their visit to Baltimore.”
The closest parallel to Lexington in D.C. is the expansive Eastern Market in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
The Eastern Market, designed by the same architect as the Smithsonian Museum, first opened in 1873 and earned a reputation as the center of Capitol Hill. Today this market features permanent indoor businesses offering flowers, dairy, quality meats, a delicatessen, produce and groceries.
Every Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday, the Eastern Market has an outdoor market where nearby farmers from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia offer fresh produce.
There is also a new market, near the heart of DC, serving consumers who have less time, more money, and refined tastes. The Union Market near 6th Street and Florida Avenue near the old Centre Market site promises “an open-air rooftop bar and green space, with stunning 360-degree city views.”
One business at the generally upscale Union Market serves to show there is still something irresistible about coming face to face with the people who produce the food. Almaala Farms offers a full range of produce, including tomatoes, peaches, okra, grapes and more from the family farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.