Generations of family operations intertwine to provide Hoosier State’s capital with year-round, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Ever since restaurateur Joe Stahr opened St. Elmo Steak House in 1902, the iconic Indianapolis restaurant has been making its famous horseradish sauce in its original downtown location. “We grind the horseradish daily and make small batches of sauce throughout the day to make sure it is extremely spicy and fresh,” says Bryn Jones, vice president of marketing and retail for St. Elmo.
The star player in three different horseradish sauces, this vital ingredient (goggles are required) needs to be fresh and potent “to make sure it has that extra spicy kick our guests love,” says Jones. That’s why St. Elmo trusts Piazza Produce to deliver.
“We have a fantastic relationship with distributor Piazza Produce,” she says. “They source all of our horseradish specifically for us.”
Piazza, Corsaro, Caito, Mascari, Ray and Bova. These are the surnames of the produce wholesalers who’ve spent generations supplying Indianapolis with fresh produce. Many of the individuals who carry these names are also related to one another, either by birth or marriage.
“I love working in the family business and having everyone involved,” says Greg Corsaro, chief executive officer for IF&P Foods LLC, the holding company for Piazza Produce, Indianapolis Fruit and Garden Cut. “We respect each other, which is why the family bonds have never been severed. Working with family can be challenging, especially in our business, where we are working with a perishable product in a dynamic environment. When things go well, it’s easy, but when things don’t go well, it’s nice to be surrounded by the people I care about the most.”
The majority of IF&P ownership was purchased by Rotunda Capital Partners, a private equity group, in August of 2017, “so we’re technically no longer majority family-owned,” says Corsaro. “However, we are still a family business due to the number of family still involved.”
Indianapolis Fruit Co. and Piazza Produce Inc. operate independently. Piazza is a distributor to the foodservice sector, and Indianapolis Fruit handles retail. Garden Cut Fresh Products is the fresh-cut, value-added division of Indianapolis Fruit, although it also supplies value-added product to Piazza Produce when needed.
“Indianapolis is having a food renaissance,” says Daniel Corsaro, director of sales and marketing for Indy Fruit. “Our consumers are more intrigued by things that are different, whether that’s cultural cuisine, innovative products, whether that’s health and diet, ethnic products. It was very transactional for a long time, but now people want an experience. That is changing because the community is changing. There is more of a need for independent restaurateurs pushing taste buds to the limit.”
Daniel Corsaro, 30, is Greg’s younger cousin and the third Daniel Corsaro in his family line. He went into the insurance business for a short time but returned to produce. “The challenge is exciting, unpredictable. The same reason this business is frustrating for others is what I like about it.” His dad, also Daniel, is retired but still calls his son every morning to check in.
RAY & MASCARI
Just as the Indianapolis produce business has more than one Daniel Corsaro, it also has multiple Mike Rays. Mike A. Ray is the vice president of operations for Ray and Mascari (R&M), a tomato repacking company in downtown Indianapolis. His grandfather, Michael G. Ray, started the company in 1938, along with Michael G.’s uncles Gus, Tony and Frank Mascari.
Everyone works together in the business including Mike A.’s father, Joe M. Ray; uncle Michael J. Ray; brother, Joseph “Rocky” Ray; and cousin Jason Ray. Mike A.’s son, Salvatore, represents the fourth generation of Rays to work in the business. Mike A.’s cousin, Patrick Malloy, runs the Lakeland division, which opened six years ago.
“Every day my uncle cooks for us and brings it to the office, so we eat together,” says Mike A. Ray. “I’m lucky I get to work with my father, brother, cousin and son. Growing up in this business, I got to watch the masters.”
While other producers bring in a variety of produce, Ray brings in a variety of tomatoes, which come from different areas throughout the year: now the tomatoes come from Florida and Mexico; in July they’ll come from Southern California. The local season begins at the end of July and will include tomatoes from Tennessee and Michigan. “In the summertime, there is nothing better than a nice, vine-ripened tomato – a tomato you would be proud to put on your burger or in a summer salad,” says Mike A. Ray.
Privately owned and family run, R&M distributes tomatoes to foodservice, processors, wholesalers and retail outlets throughout the Midwest and on the East Coast. Florida tomatoes come from Naples, Immokalee, Homestead, Palmetto and Ruskin, and are repacked in Ray & Mascari’s Lakeland operation.
Although the company has tried to sell other commodities, R&M has been selling tomatoes as a specialty since 1970. The company engineered its own equipment to protect the fragile fruit. Ranging from TOV and Roma to grape and cherry tomatoes, R&M sells 20-25 different items.
Before 1955, there were 10 wholesalers downtown in Indianapolis’ Holy Rosary neighborhood. Today, R&M is the only one on the same site — although the location has expanded to 120,000 square feet and continues to grow.
All IN THE (CORSARO) FAMILY
Greg Corsaro’s grandfather, Danny Corsaro (there are four men with the name Daniel Corsaro who are or were at one time in the produce business in Indianapolis) started a banana business on the Indianapolis Produce Terminal in the 1940s. Greg’s uncles — two of Danny’s sons — Joe and (also) Danny, along with the Mascari brothers, Mike and Chris, purchased Indy Fruit in the mid-1980s from Greg’s great-uncle, Joe Mascari.
Greg’s father, Paul, became a CPA and an attorney. Greg followed in his father footsteps, getting the same degrees, but eventually the produce business called him back. After a conversation with his uncles and the Mascari brothers, he joined the company in 1992.
Pete Piazza started Piazza Produce in the early 1970s with his dad, Paul. In 1997, Indy Fruit and Garden Cut combined with Piazza Produce to form IF&P. In 2012, IFP purchased Circle City, a produce wholesale company owned by another Danny Corsaro.
Caito is the last name of Daniel and Greg’s grandmother. Her uncles were the founders of Caito Foods, a large Indianapolis distributor that recently sold to grocery distributor and retailer SpartanNash. When Indy Fruit was operating in Indianapolis and throughout the Midwest, Caito was a competitor with the same customer base and value proposition. Now, Indy Fruit competes with produce distributors and grocery distributors in 15 states. It also competes with terminal markets in Detroit and Chicago, “so it’s really tough on the retail side,” says Greg Corsaro.
On the foodservice side, in the Midwest, Piazza’s main competitors are the regional produce distributors and broadline distributors, such as Sysco, U.S. Foods and Gordon Food Service.
Competition among family members in other companies is friendly, but in the case of Indy Fruit, competing distributors exist outside of the city, says Daniel Corsaro. Indianapolis Fruit delivers to retailers in 15 states, from Minneapolis to the north, Kansas City to the west, Pittsburgh to the east and south to Atlanta.
Indianapolis differs from other cities in that there is no terminal. During its heyday, “the terminal was relevant because everyone had a specialty,” says Daniel Corsaro. “One customer would buy from suppliers in the terminal. My father’s specialty was potatoes and bananas, but nobody had everything. Now, every company supplies every kind of produce.”
Today, Indianapolis Fruit carries about 4,000 items, 500 of which are organic. Eighty-five percent of that is produce, says Daniel Corsaro.
This area is dominated by big box retailers. “The bigger retail grocery stores have been good at delivering an experience that is boutique, and they have become the local grocer without being the local grocer,” says Daniel Corsaro. “There are falls in that model, though, and they are still the big boys at the end of the day.”
The other difference between Indianapolis and other cities, when it comes to selling wholesale produce, is the lack of small independent retailers.
Daniel Corsaro believes the market would be more receptive to a smaller retailer now. “The community is passionate about where we live and what we’re about as citizens. If someone came here and could provide that experience at a high level of quality at a fair price, I think the community would embrace it.”
HelloFresh and other meal-kit services, while dealing with subscriber retention, have branched out to retail markets. “It’s a fun program for us because that category is not just meal kits,” says Daniel Corsaro. “The whole category of delivering a turnkey meal solution is appealing for us. We are excited to be in a partnership with HelloFresh because they have brand equity in the market, they’re a robust organization in terms of their scope, and they’re an international company. The markets that we serve — Cleveland, Chicago, Nashville, Minneapolis, Madison, Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis — those are populations of extreme diversity, so a company like HelloFresh can offer that international flair. We feel confident that they will lead the market.”
Indy’s Culinary Scene Shines
Local produce plays standout part on plates from city’s top chefs.
Although meat and potatoes still rule in the Midwestern city of Indianapolis, chefs and restaurateurs are expressing their love for vegetables too. Indianapolis was among the cities listed in Food & Wine’s “32 Places to Go (And Eat) in 2019” and has also been recognized by Travel and Leisure, Zagat and Conde Nast as a favorite city for foodies.
“Because Indy continues to grow, more and more restaurants continue to open, and our talented chefs are choosing to stay in the city because they can open brick and mortar restaurants more affordably,” says Morgan Snyder, director of public relations for VisitIndy.com, the city’s tourism site. “There’s a hunger for new, local restaurants among visitors and residents. Our chefs are delivering. We’ve never had a stronger culinary scene than we do right now.”
Snyder says that three-fourths of all downtown restaurants use local and home-grown products. This trend continues to grow each year. There’s been a lot of movement lately to provide healthy options for diners, which results in great vegetarian-friendly spots in the city.
Indiana grows more than 30 major fruits and vegetables every year, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, and is the national leader in growing peppermint, spearmint, pumpkins, tomatoes and watermelon. Indiana’s main growing season is April through November.
Hoosiers like to help their neighbors, says Suzi Spahr, program manager for Indiana Grown, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s statewide branding initiative. More residents are picking up local produce, whether that means buying from down the street, two towns away or the next county.
An Indiana Grown store, selling produce, spirits and other Indiana-based products is scheduled to open in the Indianapolis International Airport next year. Indiana Grown, which began in July 2015, holds events including the daylong Monumental Marketplace — Spahr says is more than a farmers’ market — and has a strong presence at the 17-day Indiana State Fair held in Indianapolis.
Finding vegetable-centric restaurants in Indianapolis can be difficult, says Jeff Clawson, culinary specialist with Gordon Food Service in Indianapolis. He cites Tinker Street, Nesso and 45 Degrees as restaurants with “talented chefs who are giving some cool treatments to produce.”
Another favorite for Clawson is Vida, which has an in-house herb and baby greens wall. Vida holds the AAA four-diamond award since its opening in 2016. Cunningham Restaurants Group, which owns Vida and Nesso, also has a hydroponic farm that provides vegetables year-round.
The local Patachou Foundation uses the proceeds from food sales to feed at-risk and food insecure children. Its restaurant, called Public Greens, is in three locations and sources from its own microgarden
“Farm to table lives well within Indiana culture,” says Rick Hopkins, food and beverage director of Table restaurant by Market District in Carmel, IN. “We take trendy items and make them comfort foods.”
Table By Market District Marries Retail And Foodservice
Guests seek out exotic produce, specialty items and organics.
What? A restaurant attached to grocery store?
That was Lauren Stafford’s first reaction when she heard about the dining concept called Table, a full-service, sit-down restaurant connected to Market District supermarket in Carmel, IN.
“But as soon as I tasted this … she points to her Power Bowl with farro, avocado, sweet potatoes, broccolini, Brussels sprouts, raisins and apples … I thought: ‘I need to come back here,’ ” says Stafford, who lives in Noblesville, an Indianapolis suburb just north of Carmel. Dining with her husband and son, she commented on the dish’s freshness. “It tasted like it was made from scratch. I’ve never seen an upscale restaurant in a grocery store. It’s so unexpected.”
That’s how most people react, says Table’s staff. Sure, lots of supermarkets have deli counters and food bars with casual seating, but Market District’s concept is different. This is a 130-seat restaurant with a lively kitchen and waitstaff serving a varied and rotating menu. Table serves beer and wine, with regular wine tastings and a monthly wine-and-dine dinner. Lunch and dinner are served daily, and there is brunch on Sundays.
“We’ve married retail and culinary, and it works,” says Rick Hopkins, director of food and beverage for Market District and Table. He also credits his talented culinary staff. Currently, this is the only Market District store with a Table in it, but Hopkins says the company plans to add more.
Vegetables are celebrated in dishes such as tacos topped with sweet potatoes or avocado (the “avo taco” is a crispy avocado on a corn tortilla with mango and watermelon radish); crispy cauliflower “wings” marinated in hot sauce, sprinkled with buffalo seasoning and served with an herb buttermilk dressing; and Brussels sprouts glazed with a pomegranate and molasses syrup and laid on a bed of whipped Burrata cheese.
The trendy Market District, a subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle stores, is right at home in the affluent and fast-growing community of Carmel (also known as the roundabout capital of the world with more than 100 traffic circles). Feeding off the metropolitan area of Indianapolis, which is 23 miles away, residents here come from a variety of cultures, says Hopkins. Well-traveled and health-conscious, Market District’s customers want exotic produce, specialty items and organics.
Table, which opened in October 2016, is the vision of Laura Kauret, chief executive at Giant Eagle. The key to the success of the restaurant-supermarket model, says Hopkins, is internal procurement, which is utilized in both the foodservice and restaurant areas. It saves the store money because we seldom have a need to discard highly perishable fruits and veggies as we are able to use them daily in our soups, salads and dining room entrees.” For example, tomatoes can be used in the store’s house-made chutney, sauces and jams.
On weekdays, Table’s lunch menu appeals to Carmel’s surrounding industry professionals and the medical community. In the restaurant, diners always know where the fresh food is coming from — the adjoining grocery store. This summer, Table launches its event patio space, which includes additional seating outside, along with a smoker.
Because the produce department is at their disposal, chefs at Table can change the menu based on creativity and seasonality, says Hopkins, who buys his produce from Indianapolis-based Caito Foods and local farmers. “We take advantage of what’s in the store and turn it into fun foods in the restaurant.”
WHAT’S FOR DINNER?
Hopkins boasts a produce department that always offers customers the freshest fruits and vegetables, because when a new batch of sweet potatoes or citrus comes in, there is no need to sell the older produce first. Hopkins simply uses it in prepared foods or restaurant dishes.
It’s a win-win-win for the market, restaurant and customer, says Hopkins, who often walks around the produce department answering questions. “If diners enjoy a meal in the restaurant, we can teach them how to make that dish at home. When people see the chef’s coat, they feel comfortable asking me about what kind of produce will work well in a certain dish.”
Hopkins also keeps a paring knife around his neck to allow customers to try the produce. “If they want to taste a piece of fruit, I can cut off a piece to sample on the spot. If they try, they buy.”
Just beyond the produce section, along the perimeter of the front of the store, Market District gives shoppers other options: Starbucks shares space with a taqueria, sushi bar, deli, juice bar, antojitos (street food) bar and various prepared foods. The store also offers a cooking school, catering, banquet space and a food truck.
GROCERIES STILL FRONT AND CENTER
Market District is a grocery store, first and foremost, says Hopkins.
Inside the 130,000-square-foot store, “produce is the key differentiator,” as Market District sells an average of 600 pounds of guacamole per week (more on Cinco de Mayo and Super Bowl Sunday). “I never have to throw away an unsold avocado because we use them in the guac.”
The store offers an experience, not just a transaction. “If you just need kitty litter and detergent, you won’t come here. Our customers know they can come here to explore and shop,” says Hopkins.
Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle has more than 300 stores in the Midwest. Included among that number are 15 Market Districts in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The chain also owns GetGo convenience stores.
At the front of the produce section, the store also merchandises its Great to Go meal kits, which include a protein, fresh veggies and a link to a YouTube teaching video. Other conveniences appeal to Millennials and working mothers: Regular customers can download the Scan Pay & Go mobile app or pick up an in-store scanner, which allows them to scan the items they wish to buy and pay automatically at checkout — foregoing the lines.
Table restaurant/Market District supermarket
- 11505 N. Illinois St.
- Carmel, IN 46032
- Store Phone: (317) 569-0171
- Restaurant Phone: (317) 689-6330
- Store Hours: 6 am to 10 pm
- Restaurant Hours: Mon – Thurs 11 am to 6 pm
- Fri – Sat 11 am to 10 pm
Sundays 9 am to 3 pm