A look at what makes the San Francisco market unique.
San Francisco is best known for its year-round fog, iconic Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars and colorful Victorian houses. There are plenty of things to do and see, as well, such as Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street and Major League Baseball’s Giants.
The city also has a thriving produce scene, which is why it’s often referred to as the “Land of Fruits and Nuts.” Winter brings California avocado varieties such as the Sir Prize and the Fuerte, as well as the usual citrus favorites. And in the spring, it’s all about local strawberries and asparagus.
“We are fortunate to be a part of a bustling produce scene here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where many consumers expect delicious, vibrant, local and organic produce since California is gifted with such great weather for fruits and veggies year-round,” says Garin Hay, produce buyer for Canyon Market in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco. “Due to the high demand for fantastic, local, organic produce, it’s often a first-come-first-serve basis getting direct-farm accounts. At least from our perspective, many farms just don’t produce enough to satisfy the demand from grocery stores.”
The demographic makeup of San Francisco represents a cultural hodgepodge. Of the approximately 850,000 people in the city, about 33 percent are Asian, 15 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 6 percent are African-American and 48 percent are white. That affects the sort of produce offerings the companies look for.
“With the many different cultures that make the Bay Area their home, as well as travelers, a diverse variety of products is required. Many diverse growing districts surround the Bay Area and freshness is essential,” says Robert Andrighetto, president of Market Produce Sales Inc. “Like any business, if you can supply your customers’ needs and meet their expectations consistently, you will gain their confidence and grow together. Dependable transportation in the many different growing regions plays a crucial part in how you perform.”
From 2009–13 median earnings of residents were much higher than the state or the nation — roughly $60,000/year versus $35,000. Today, Millennials represent a large percentage of the population, with the city being called one of the top places for the generation to live and work.
Weather in the area plays a big role in produce as well, and how much rain falls in a given year can spell success or failure for a produce company.
“Year-to-year is always a challenge. Weather patterns that last for a few years have been challenging, especially in the winter vegetables,” says Andrighetto. “We’ve seen drought in some areas and lots of rain in others. The 2016 weather patterns were much more grower-friendly, so with that came steady flow with reasonable pricing.”
With California weather grower-friendly, local is an important word. Many small independent growers bring their harvest to the terminals and farmers markets. Plus, in the summer a lot of people grow produce in their own home gardens. Business is strong in the San Francisco Bay Area and requires suppliers to stay up with demand.
Organics is also a huge deal in San Francisco and is one of the first places the movement really took off.
Earl Herrick, president of Earl’s Organic Produce, says the organic shopper is generally well educated, a little more heeled, with a little more disposable income. “They’re curious about their food, whether it’s through traveling or just their experimentation, and just the life that they share here,” he says. “Awareness of food is just heightened. I mean, every little town around here, there’s a farmers market. There are well-established farms all around the area .”
The Industry Speaks
Peter Carcione of wholesaler Carcione’s Fresh Produce, has been in business for 47 years and has seen plenty of changes in the industry. “When I first started here, this was consignment. We didn’t get any produce from Chile,” he says. “Things have changed quite a lot. Restaurants want to buy the very best, and we need to be able to supply them; so we’re now getting produce from all over the world.”
Market Produce Sales handles all varieties of potatoes, onions, garlic, yams, sweet potatoes and anything related, and also specializes in green onions, radish, celery, broccoli, and pretty much anything related to greens. Andrighetto says the best way to keep up with the changes in foodservice and retail is to watch what’s going on around you and listen to your customer’s requests.
“We’ve been supplying fresh produce for 25 years. I come from a produce family that was one of the original San Francisco Bay Area produce families that have been growing and satisfying the trends and staples for 45 years, and still have many family members in the business,” says Andrighetto. “Through the years we’ve learned which districts offer the highest-quality produce versus other districts or regions. Having longevity in the industry allows us to anticipate what districts to focus on and what will be the best value for the customer.”
The company handles premier labels, including Andy Boy, Pioneer, Dynasty, Peter Rabbit, Nature’s Pride, Fresh Express, Coastline, Big L, Arthur Hood and many more. The company supplies just about everyone.
“Because of selling the three Bay Area wholesale terminals, the many dealer wholesalers, who also supply the restaurants, large and small, you can see our labels in local stores, restaurants, cruise lines, hotels, government contracts, schools, even mail order,” says Andrighetto. “We deliver fresh-cut (usually within 24 hours after harvest) produce to our customers and have been accomplishing it for years. The relationships we have established with our suppliers have been a great advantage because they know how ‘quality-oriented’ the Bay Area has become.”
While the produce offerings haven’t changed too much over the years, Andrighetto notes that what has really caught on is the traceability and accountability. “Consumers are showing a greater desire for the fresh produce that they’re buying, and want more comprehensive information on what they’re feeding their family,” he says. “Certification is becoming a necessity in certain facets of the industry now. You see it mostly in corporate chain-type restaurants. If you can’t produce the proper documentation (i.e., Primus, traceability), they are unable to purchase from you.”
There are also a greater percentage of customers that are trying to be as organic as possible. Many restaurants are even growing their own vegetables, when possible, and tout that on their menus.
Shasta Produce occupies locations in all three Northern California produce markets, with its role being to deliver high-quality, unique and often difficult to procure fruits and vegetables to its customers.
“We take this very seriously, as our buyers are constantly traveling to visit farms and trade shows across the United States and other countries to find these products,” says Butch Hill, manager of purchase sales for Shasta. “Most people do not realize how much goes into finding these deals and arranging logistics to get the produce to our distribution facilities. Customers can simply come to our facilities and view the various standard, specialty and exotic varieties of produce in one place and make purchases according to their needs.”
Hill says local growers are getting more creative with their breeding programs and the ability to cross breed different varieties of fruits and vegetable is virtually endless.
“More, now than ever, growers are attuned to this and are constantly testing new varieties each year,” he says. “This is a great opportunity for our customers to participate in these programs. A great example is our partnership with The Grapery. Shasta Produce was the first wholesale distributor to offer their Cotton Candy grape, which is now a popular hit with mainstream consumers across the country.”
Being in Northern California definitely has its advantages, but it also has some disadvantages. For example, as the summer growing season moves up the state to local farms in Northern California, some customers will pick up local produce themselves because it is convenient; often times, these small farms will deliver directly to the stores.
“So for a few months every summer we lose some of our distribution to our local farms, but that is just a natural part of the growing life cycle each year,” says Hill. “To compensate, we focus on areas where we can offer value to our customers, such as offering certain varieties of fruits and vegetables in areas that are more difficult for pickup or to get delivered.”
Michael Janis is general manager of the 25-acre San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, which is home to more than 30 produce businesses offering products from conventional and fresh-cuts to Asian and Hispanic and organics.
“We are ground zero of what one can argue is the food mecca of the United States,” says Janis. “The market is unique in a number of ways. We are one of the only wholesale markets governed by a non-profit board, and while we are very much focused on delivering food infrastructure for our businesses to grow, we also are also engaged to problematic work with everything from food policy to food recovery to economic development.”
Earl’s Organic Produce, which has been doing business out of the San Francisco Produce Market for decades, claims to be the first organic wholesaler in the city and still the only 100 percent organic wholesaler on the market today. “Back in the 1980s, it was a joke. Everyone knew I was an organic buyer. There were a couple of us on the market since San Francisco has been for a long, long time, a real hotbed of the organic industry. The joke was, if they had something rotting in the corner, they would say, ‘Earl, this is organic,’” says Herrick. “There was a huge dispute back then by the guys on the market saying you can’t grow this organically.”
Today, Earl’s Organic Produce claims to be the biggest house on the market, employing the largest number of people and is open almost 24/7.
“It’s changed quite a bit since the ’80s where, at that time, many of the independents and small stores would send a buyer down to do their shopping, and they’d walk the street, and get the truck loaded up and head back to their market,” says Herrick. “In the three decades, we’ve seen a consolidation of some of the smaller markets, but also the re-investment, if you will, of the markets. And simultaneously, we saw the growth of some distributors.”
The Retail Scene
As big box stores get bigger, independents are getting more creative with their offerings. Stores such as Bi-Rite Market, Canyon Market, Good Life Grocery, Berkeley Bowl, Rainbow Grocery and Washington Vegetable Co. are all investing heavily in bringing local produce into their stores.
Shasta Produce’s Hill notes large grocers are often bureaucratic and slow to move on what people really want — typically only carrying items that are proven sellers. “This is where the smaller more nimble independents shine. These are the ones listening to their customers and making changes on the fly,” he says. “They are constantly testing new things and providing new offerings. If two people come in and ask for longan fruit, they will have it on display the very next day. This is why smaller independents are so important to our local communities. They offer a level of produce varieties and service the big chains just can not do.”
“in the three decades, we’ve seen a consolidation of some of the smaller markets, but also the re-investment, if you will, of the markets. And simultaneously, we saw the growth of some distributors.”
— Earl Herrick, Earl’s Organic Produce
Market Produce Sales’ Andrighetto notes more retailers in San Francisco are now specializing in ethnic items according to their location. “There are many Asian markets that cater to Asians and carry Asian-specific items. If you were to shop in some of those stores, you’d be surprised how many non-Asians shop there,” he says. “I’ve been watching these stores, as well as Hispanic stores, for two decades and see a lot more diverse nationalities shopping. It seems people are more concerned with the foods they are buying, and the different ethnic markets offer a variety of healthy choices that weren’t available years ago because traditional supermarkets were pretty much the same store to store.”
Canyon Market is just 10 years old and sources a great deal of produce from two all-organic distributors that source mostly locally. Because Canyon Market is a neighborhood grocery rather than a supermarket, being small allows the produce department some freedom to source directly from small farms.
“Although most of our produce comes through our distributors, we are increasingly establishing direct farm relationships. We also carry a lot of organic produce from Mexico and South America during the winter, but we try to source Fair Trade as much as possible,” says Hay. “There are very few conventional items that we carry, but we do carry them because our customers expect them year-round.”
Hay notes in the past few years, the store has built relationships with a few small, organic farms that sell mostly at farmers markets in addition to delivering to a few restaurants and other small grocery stores.
Unlike most San Francisco neighborhoods, Canyon Market is in an area that doesn’t have a farmers market, so they try to fill that function by representing the local bounty.
“We try to balance a focus on the local/organic with serving everybody in our neighborhood. We really celebrate the seasons and aren’t afraid to not stock peaches in the winter, for example, even though some of our customers would probably buy them,” says Hay. “However, we would probably stock less Central and South American produce and less conventional produce if we felt empowered to; our customers do expect winter tomatoes, grapes, etc., and we feel bound to serve them.”
Many of the store’s customers cook, so the produce department goes through popular cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and kale quickly, and are always trying to offer what customers want most.
“We have access to incredible summer organic heirloom tomatoes here, and they fly off the shelves in the summer along with local stone fruit,” says Hay. “This fall, we really made an effort to push hard squash and were surprised by the positive response, even with some less traditional varieties. It goes to show that many customers here are cooking with the seasons and are interested in trying new things.”
The 22nd and Irving Market in the Sunset District offers an array of fruits, vegetables, grains and other standard snacks. The Irving Market has been a family owned and operated business since its inception, and customers are able to enjoy a large assortment of organic products, including fruits and vegetables. The market’s business is geared toward supporting local vendors and receives the majority of its produce from the San Francisco Produce Terminal Market, as well as the South San Francisco Produce Market.
Gus’s Community Market has three locations in the Sunset District, Mission District and Haight District. The stores are family owned and operated. The atmosphere provides shoppers with the traditional small grocery shop vibe that is often a preference. The market relies on local produce vendors for all its products.
The Parkside Market is located in the epicenter of the Sunset District. Throughout the course of more than two decades, it has established six major produce markets specializing in ethnic and international grocery items from all over the world. Its international menu includes products from Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, France and numerous other countries. The Parkside Market makes it a top priority in carrying a wide variety of Mediterranean food items in its assortment of products.