Hours before dawn, buyers choose produce that ends up on your plate

July 06, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

It looms out of the darkness beyond Route 1 like a huge sci-fi special effect, the long, low buildings illuminated in white and blue, trucks swarming around like bees with headlights. It's 2:50 a.m. and the Produce Market at the Maryland Wholesale Food Center in Jessup is about to open.

The "day" here begins at 3 a.m. and selling ends at 9 a.m. But by then, most of the trucks will be gone, scattering over five states to deliver sparkling fresh corn, tomatoes, bananas, arugula, kiwi, onions, cabbage, lettuce, zucchini, chayote, green beans and myriad other fruits and vegetables to eager retailers and restaurateurs.

One recent morning buyer Kent Pendleton takes his place in the line of cars and small panel trucks poised to barrel in when the gates open. Eighteen-wheelers and other trucks whisk by: Deliveries can be made at any time. The buyers have to wait.

Mr. Pendleton, who's been in the market, produce and food-service business since 1976, comes to Jessup in the wee hours of every morning to choose the items he will sell and serve at his produce market-store-carryout in Columbia, called Produce Galore. He is both a perfectionist and a pragmatist, noted for his choosiness, but careful to keep track of every tiny fluctuation in the prices of the scores of items he buys.

Right now, about a dozen vehicles back from the head of the line, he likens the market to "a sleeping giant." But in just moments, when the turnpike goes up and the trucks, cars and vans whisk off to various stops, "It's "rush, rush, rush," he says. "Everybody's in a hurry." In other businesses, he says, a purchasing agent places an order and, in days or even weeks or months, the items are delivered. "Here," he says, "you place an order and two hours later you're back at your store taking delivery."

The energy the market runs on is freshness: Produce comes in daily, and getting it into the hands of the folks who are actually going to eat it while it's at the peak of desirability is a frantic task that involves a legion of people loading and unloading trucks, taking orders, zipping around on forklifts, snatching up boxes and crates to fill each customer's order.

The gate goes up and the line of vehicles begins to move, jerkily at first, then in a long swooshing arc that splits at the end as each buyer races for his favorite starting point. For Mr. Pendleton, it's G. Cefalu & Bros. "These people haul to me," he says. "I look around and see what they have before I start" combing the rest of the market.

He will go on to shop elsewhere; later Cefalu will follow his footsteps, picking up his orders from the other wholesalers and whisking everything up to Columbia.

How does he know what to buy? "I bring a list of items with me," he says, referring to the folded sheet of yellow legal paper that he will consult repeatedly over the next 2 1/2 hours. "I look at everyone's inventory," he says. Because he is there every day, he can keep close tabs on what is new.

Just a few tons

He buys lettuce, oranges, watermelons, cucumbers and peppers. On this day, his purchases will amount to a few tons -- Tuesday, he says, is a slow day. "I'll order 10 to 15 tons of stuff toward the end of the week, getting ready for the weekend," Mr. Pendleton says.

The next stop is J. C. Banana, where Mr. Pendleton stops to look at a carton of papayas. Also on display, propped up in the boxes they are shipped in, are red bananas, avocados, ginger root, limes, mangoes, chayote and coconuts. He chooses papayas, pineapples and bananas.

As recently as five years ago, most wholesale "houses" specialized in a particular kind of produce, says Susan Keiholtz, public relations specialist for the Maryland Food Center Authority, of which the market is part. J. C. Banana once sold only bananas, but now offers "tropicals," such as chayote, plantains, and malanga, as well -- items prized in the Latin American community. These days, for several reasons, "everybody's gone full-line," Ms. Keiholtz says.

The proliferation of produce is partly the result of demand, Mr. Pendleton says, as populations grow and growers and wholesalers become more competitive; and it's partly the fact that the technology of transportation and packaging has become so sophisticated that a truckload of peaches can travel 2,400 miles without being pounded to pulp. "For strawberries they have special air shocks [on the trucks] so they don't get bounced around," he says. "And refrigeration is much more reliable."

B6 In addition, he notes, the market has gone global.

'The whole world's here'

"The whole world's here," Mr. Pendleton says, dodging artists of the forklift as they speed about the sales floors and loading docks with the precision and abandon of Shriners on mopeds. "We're bringing in apples from South Africa. Those tomatoes with the funny boxes, they're from Holland. I bought red and yellow peppers this morning from Holland."

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