Originally printed in the March 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Through decades of change in San Francisco, market wholesalers remain steadfast in their commitment.
Wholesale markets have experienced significant change in the past 40 years, yet merchants continue to provide value for a significant customer base. In the 1970s, Stanley Produce Company was the only house selling Belgian endive on the San Francisco market. “Now it’s prevalent,” says Stanley Corriea Jr., president. “There’s no such thing as a proprietary item anymore. But on the upside, greater availability has created more consumer awareness.”
Peter Carcione, president of Carcione’s Fresh Produce in South San Francisco, CA, thinks the biggest change affecting produce markets in the past half-century was the advent of widespread refrigeration. “Before refrigeration, the buyer of the local store had to come to the wholesale market every day,” he says. “That’s how it was when I first started in 1969. Easily available refrigeration and cooling has changed the dynamic of the industry.”
Yet, even with major industry changes, San Francisco wholesale merchants have continued to serve customers and prosper. The San Francisco area wholesale produce markets actually encompass three markets: the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market on Jerrold Avenue, the Golden Gate Produce Terminal in South San Francisco and the Oakland Market.
Corriea reports seeing the San Francisco market growing. “There’s always turnover with business,” he says. “But, our market is situated very well. There are still many customers who need the wholesale markets.”
San Francisco’s merchants pride themselves on shepherding customers. Guy Davidoff, chief financial officer at Twin Peaks Distributing in South San Francisco, explains the benefit of shopping wholesalers includes seeing what’s new in global produce and supporting local markets when in need of additional inventory. “They provide the best quality to their customers daily,” he says. “Chain stores can benefit by networking with wholesalers to gain a better understanding of how their needs can be addressed.”
Variety and quality form the core of the value proposition. “Stores thrive on quality, and repeat business is based on quality of produce and price,” says Kevin Sommerfeld, owner of Banner Fruit Company in South San Francisco.
North Bay Produce on the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market specializes in quality fruit. “About 99% of what we sell is fruit, including apples, oranges, grapes and berries,” says Gary Camarda, president. “We sell based on seasonality, so our product mix changes.”
Retail and foodservice clientele remain very value conscious. “Our customers count on us to help them make value-driven decisions,” says Corriea. “For example, when cherry tomatoes are short and expensive, whereas grape tomatoes are long and reasonable, we steer customers toward grape tomatoes. We’re trying to pass on the education we have.”
According to Corriea, market business is basic supply and demand with the perishable factor thrown in. “We have to be able to move quickly and adjust to markets, shortages and oversupply on a daily basis,” he says.
Customers who walk the wholesale markets do so to have eyes and hands on the product. “Buyers get product faster and actually see it,” says Corriea. “They know what they’re getting up front. On the market, you also can understand the different price fluctuations and what the various merchants cater to.”
Buyers know what they want to sell and buy, notes Camarda. “If they’re down here shopping, they have their own eyes on it,” he says. “That behooves them more than picking up the phone and ordering blind.”
Carcione agrees the best way to buy produce is to look at it, smell it, touch it and taste it. “And the only way you can do that before you buy it is on the wholesale market,” he says. “More stores want their shelves to reflect what their buyers have already tasted. And consumers are willing to pay for good tasting produce.”
Increasingly, customers rely on market merchants to give them a competitive edge. “With increasing costs, it’s getting harder for small stores to stay open because they’re being squeezed,” says Sommerfeld. “We provide them an advantage. We give them the best product we can for the best price to allow them to make money. If our customers make money and come back day in and day out, that’s a benefit to all. Our job is to get it in the stores and help them with specials.”
Twin Peaks endeavors to give its customers the best produce from around the world at the best price. “We strive to get our growers’ merchandise to the marketplace as fast as possible,” says Davidoff. “For the past 26 years, we have set the bar high to ensure our customer expectations are met.”
Information supplied by the wholesale market provides a crucial competitive advantage. “We advise our customers to look at the market, see what’s available and see what areas are coming in,” says Carcione. “Because we see this everyday, we can advise our customers. We can tell them, ‘this area just started, the sugar is great,’ or ‘now’s the time to buy these Navels.’ It’s familiarity — being there and seeing and tasting what’s coming in.”