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


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."

While Mr. Pendleton looks at box after box of mushrooms in one of the huge cold-storage rooms at Edward G. Rahll, Eddie Rahll takes up the thread, explaining that even for domestic produce, as the year goes on, the supply moves north with the warmer weather. "We were getting corn from Florida -- the corn's getting to Georgia now, the tomatoes are up to Virginia -- Maryland stuff is coming up, probably next week."

Sweet potatoes come from Louisiana, blueberries from New Jersey, cherries and yellow zucchini from California; Asian pears from Chile.

Mr. Pendleton buys peaches, mushrooms, corn, nectarines.

At Charm City produce, salesman Kevin Jones patiently opens box after box of green grapes. Mr. Pendleton asks to see a different brand of grapes, which are stacked higher up on the storage racks.

"He thinks we hide everything that's good," Mr. Jones jokes, climbing up to grab one of the higher boxes.

"How about cherries?" Mr. Pendleton asks.

"Kenny, all I have that you might use is Washington State," Mr. Jones replies.

Mr. Pendleton starts out. "Let me have five of those Oscars," he says, gesturing to the first grapes he looked at.

"That's the first grape he's bought from me all month," Mr. Jones says.

"I have to find honeydews," Mr. Pendleton says.

At one point, Ms. Keiholtz stops at Tamburo Inc. to offer condolences to the owners for the recent death of their father. There are 101 merchants in the market, which is housed in two long, low buildings. Many of them are run by the second or third generation in the family. There is nothing fancy about any of the spaces, called houses in market parlance; concrete, concrete block, plywood and cardboard are the surfaces of choice. But the market is a wonderfully colorful place because of its product: rooms full of watermelons, a sea of tomatoes, a 3-foot tall stack of picture-perfect spring onions ("Those are locally grown onions," Mr. Pendleton says. "Farmers bring 'em in.").

Which honeydew will do?

At W. D. Class, he goes to a pallet containing boxes of honeydew melons, lifts off the strapping and begins searching through them. He explains the numbers marked on the sides of most boxes: "It's a sizing system." If 10 is checked, it means 10 to a particular container. A 12 would mean 12 to a container -- thus a smaller version of the item. Every year, the Fruit and Vegetable Division of the Agricultural Marketing Service of the .. U.S. Department of Agriculture establishes sizing specifications, depending on the crop. Prices are based on these numbers.

And every day, the USDA puts out a market report on the previous day's activity. It lists items being sold and their prices, arrivals, and prices at the shipping point. The result is an arcane newsletter that is mostly numbers, but it gives buyers an idea how much they should be paying for things, and lets sellers know how much they should be asking.

"This was established many years ago as a check and balance system," says Jim McAllister, the USDA officer in charge at the market. "We godown on 'the street' and walk the market every morning and go in all the houses. We gather prices from all the wholesalers." The information is confidential -- that is, Mr. McAllister won't tell one wholesaler what his competition next door is getting for watermelons. But by talking to all the wholesalers, USDA can compile a list of the going prices for the various commodities.

At the same time, there are USDA reporters in the field, where the produce is being picked, who report on prices farmers are getting for their crops -- the shipping point price.

The main factor influencing price is supply and demand, Mr. McAllister says, but other factors such as holidays can also affect prices, Mr. McAllister says. "Take watermelons. You're looking at the Fourth of July. . . . They've been there all along,

but now everybody and his brother wants to sell watermelons," so the prices are going up.

As a buyer, Mr. Pendleton has his own methods for keeping track of price and quality. Among other techniques, he memorizes the lot numbers inked on the bins and cartons of items being sold on consignment; since he's in the market every day, he knows which ones are newly arrived, and which ones are older (and maybe not so good). And most wholesalers will bargain, to some extent, with regular customers.

While he's negotiating for red and green-leaf lettuces, raspberries, radicchio, sun-dried tomatoes, golden zucchini and sugar-snap peas at L&M; Produce, owner Jim McWhorter offers a quick tour of his cold rooms.

"We have a few things here that you wouldn't have seen at some of the other houses," Mr. McWhorter says, "things that restaurants or people like Kent, who have food-preparation places, are using." He shows off peeled garlic cloves in a huge jar, cleaned and cored pineapples in plastic bags, pulls out a carton of baby lettuce. "Mesclun," he says. "There's a group in California that grows all these baby lettuces. We cannot keep this stuff in stock." L&M;'s baby vegetables are also popular with chefs, who use them as garnish. "It gets a little expensive if you use a lot of them," Mr. McWhorter says.

"Red Sage, are they up yet?" someone calls out, checking on an order.

For once, it's not a commodity, but a place -- the trendy Washington restaurant owned by noted Southwest chef Mark Miller.

Getting freshness and value

"I'm looking to improve the quality of product and the timeliness" of getting food to the table, says Red Sage chef Chris Swinyard, standing at the back of the truck being loaded with items for the restaurant. Buying food directly from the market wholesalers and sending it right down to the kitchen mean fresher-tasting food on the plate, he says. But it also saves money. "It's a pain to get up at 2:30 in the morning. But we probably spend three-quarters of a million dollars on produce" every year, he says. "If I can save a hundred thousand, it makes the owner happy."

By now it's just after 5 a.m. and the sky is beginning to lighten up. L&M; is Mr. Pendleton's last stop; he'll go back to Cefalu to work out shipping details and then be on his way to Produce Galore, 5430 Lynx Lane, where some of his staff of 62 awaits the delivery truck to start re- stocking store shelves and making the soups, the vegetable dips, the pastas, the gourmet entrees, the cobblers and the crisps, and chopping the vegetables for the salad bar and squeezing the lemons for the lemonade and all the other things that must be done before customers begin arriving at 9:30.

Produce Galore has grown over the past decade or so from a 1,000-square-foot, mostly summer, produce stand to a gleaming square-foot store with separate areas for produce and specialty items such as salad dressing and bagged spices, for breads and coffees (both beverages and beans), for make-your-own sandwich bars and salad bars.

Mr. Pendleton's wife Margaret oversees the kitchen, which can turn out 400 different soups, among other items. The carryout food business started slowly, but it's become quite successful.

"A lot of people have said I live the fantasy life," says Mrs. Pendleton, gesturing around the bustling kitchen. "To have all this fresh stuff available. . . . But at 3 in the morning it's not anything like the fantasy life."

But still, it has its rewards. Mr. Pendleton smiles when he lists the things he likes best about his work. "I like the excitement in the store, the busy-ness, I like the excitement of new products opening up every day -- pretty soon we'll have tomatoes and corn from Maryland. In this store, when people come in, it's a social event. It's neat."

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