Mexican asparagus, young coconuts from Thailand, stiffly frilled kale and fuschia-stemmed chard grown in Winters or Watsonville, edible purple pansies babied in a backyard in Oakland: Do you ever think about how they get to the shelves of Mollie Stone’s, onto your $11 salad in the Marina, or your $18 pizza in the Mission?
The answer is down on this chilly, pre-dawn corner of Jerrold Avenue, where the moon, fat and round as a pomelo, is sinking behind the hodgepodge cluster of warehouses, coolers, and trucking bays that make up the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, stretched over old streetcar tracks, crisscrossing worn brick-lined streets in one of the city’s last rumbling, remaining districts of light industry.
While you were sleeping or dancing, drinking or downloading, buyers from Bi-Rite, Canyon Market, Good Life, Berkeley Bowl, Rainbow Grocery and hundreds of corner groceries and fresh produce stores all around the city spent the night's darkest hours in close communion with the food you’ll be eating today, judging and bargaining to get the best stuff at the cheapest price.
It’s a working market that’s been part of the city’s fabric since the early 1960s, when the old downtown produce market was razed to make room for what’s now the Embarcadero complex. Working with the city, the vendors and merchants built a new market near where Bernal Heights flattened out past Bayshore, north of Silver Terrace not far from Bayview. Stretched over 20 acres, it provides over 650 jobs, fills more than 300,000 square feet of warehouse space and moves millions of dollars of food from growers to distributors to buyers annually.
And yet, few San Franciscans know of it. In its full swing at 2 or 3 in the morning, busy as a trading floor, the market exists to move product, this colorful money stacked up in the shape of snow peas and eggplants, radishes and apples. The daunting maze of trucks and loading bays is no place for sleepy civilians: Stand still for a moment, anywhere, and you’re bound to be in several someones’ way as they barrel past you, pushing a hand cart or maneuvering a forklift stacked high with boxes, filled with oversized red peppers from Mexico, big and shiny as shoes, or bristling bunches of parsley, dozens to a case.
If you have to be there, stay close to the sides of general manager Michael Janis and his colleague, business development representative Eddie Kapper. Genial, dedicated, fast-moving men, they slide through the market as if strolling through their offices, greeting workers by name, shaking hands with buyers. The market is made up of more than two dozen independent businesses, each with its own specialty, many still family run. There’s Washington Vegetable, carrying a full line of vegetables but specializing in greens. Earl’s Organic Produce, in business since the 1970s, sells only organic produce from its spacious new warehouse, where the coolers are adjusted to the optimal needs of the produce: one cold and moist, another cold and dry. (Bananas long for one climate, Meyer lemons another.) Whole Foods has its own huge warehouse here, which it has since outgrown; it’s moving to a new, dedicated distribution facility in Richmond soon. Some businesses, like Yuet Cheong Produce, focus on the Asian market, others in Latino products.
Skirt around an impromptu wall of limes in ten-pound boxes, then hustle past a levee of net sacks, fifty-pounders of red and yellow onions, hundredweights of potatoes destined for French-fry cutters from the Excelsior to the Richmond. At Cook’s Company and Greenleaf, the boxes are smaller, the products—edible flowers, exotic mushrooms—daintier. The clientele here are chefs, caterers, and artisans, who buy in smaller quantities and are notoriously picky about quality and consistency.
Here, not everyone comes with a truck. A trio of young men—caterers from the East Bay--are packing a black Mini Cooper with pillowcase-sized bags of greens until every inch is stuffed, a clown car of mizuna and tatsoi. At another loading bay, Fontaine McFadden, bright-eyed even at this bleak hour, wedges boxes into her hatchback. She's buying for her three-month-old venture, Strong Table, a paleo-diet meal delivery.
It’s a tricky business, dealing in perishables. In a thick blue sweatshirt, hands sheathed in heavy rubber gloves, a worker scoops crushed ice like snow over waxy boxes lettered in red Chinese characters. Broccoli likes it cold. Too warm and the stems flop into rubber, once-tight blue-green florets yawning open into sunny yellow flowers no one will buy. Brassicas like these--Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli--are the greens of winter. Cabbage will grow through snow. A good frost sweetens the kale crop, nature producing its own antifreeze in the leaves. Aphids, who love to huddle in these vegetables' nooks and crannies, can't survive the cold.
Selling wholesale like this isn't for every farmer. Earl's owner Earl Herrick, just back from visiting an avocado and citrus grower in the Pauma Valley, lays out what a distributor needs: quality, consistency, and reliable supply. He liked the man's fruit, he says, but his avocados were too small, his grapefruits not heavy enough.
Boxes are packed and labeled by size, every piece inside graded to meet a certain standard. A 20-count peach is one size, a 16-count another. Don't try to mix them in the same box. Anything too small or too light risks getting the whole box "kicked," or sent back on the truck to the farmer. There's also a matter of shelf life. Selling wholesale means the product has to last at least a week off the farm--a day or two for packing and shipping, another day or two on site at the warehouse, a day or two in the market, then however long the customer waits to use it once she gets it home.
Once, the market had bars, a hofbrau, a handful of restaurants. They’re gone now, swallowed up by the need for more space for vendors. Only the J&V remains, opening at one a.m., closing up by 10 a.m. Started by a couple of former produce workers, it's two businesses now, a café for market workers by night, a catering kitchen by day. By daybreak, even as the café empties out, the big back kitchen is in full swing busy prepping meals for businesses downtown. Order sheets for banks, tech firms and brokerages are taped to the wall. A man fills bowls with identical cubes of melon in tri-colored rows. A row of women stand making dozens of sandwiches, lining them up on plastic trays.
The market’s moving with the times. It’s just signed a new 60-year lease with the city. There are long-term, multi-million-dollar reinvestment and capital improvement plans in development, focusing on a complete overhaul and rebuilding of the vendor spaces, with a lot more room and more up-to-date, energy-efficient cooling facilities.
As the new cottage food law comes into effect, Kapper tells us how he hopes more small food businesses will see the market as a resource. Every day, says Eddie, he gets calls from people wanting to start up some kind of new business—niche caterers, jam or salsa makers, someone with a great idea for an herb salt or a juice-cleanse biz. He’ll talk to any potential new clients, walk them through, introduce them to the right vendors, try to get them what they need from the market.
It's part of a vision of community revitalization for Earl Shaddix, too. A longtime member of the San Francisco professional food community as a chef and trainer for All-Clad Metalcrafters, Shaddix recently bought a house in Bayview, and wants to show residents of the community how they can take advantage of the market's offerings to start their own small food businesses. He hopes to start a series of free food-business classes for people in the surrounding neighborhoods. He'd also like to encourage food makers around the city to start renting their kitchen space in the southeastern end of the city, where commercial rents are still reasonable.
Pushing brooms, men at the end of their shifts sweep wilted lettuce into green bins. (The market has one of the city’s highest levels of waste-diversion compliance, with a composting program for green waste and a recycling program for nearly everything else it uses, from cardboard and shrink wrap down to the tough plastic straps used to bundle stacks of boxes together.) At Whole Foods, at Safeway, the day’s produce is being arranged in green stacks, red pyramids, orange piles. The misting jets come on, hissing gently. On Jerrold Avenue, it’s quiet, until the sun goes down and the trucks arrive again, disgorging what will feed the city.