If you haven’t seen Hunts Point, ‘you haven’t lived’
If you’re attending the 2021 New York Produce Show, you have to take the post-show tour of the Hunts Point Produce Market on Thursday, Dec. 16, because, as Joel Fierman, president of Fierman Produce Exchange and co-president of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative Association, puts it: “If you haven’t seen Hunts Point, you haven’t lived.”
That’s because the Hunts Point Produce Market, located in the Bronx, spans 1 million square feet, with more than 30 merchants, 100% capacity, doing business there. It provides 60% of the produce that feeds the area’s 23 million people, and moves 300,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables every day.
We asked Susan Crowell, a Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS to talk with Joel but about the market, its efforts during the pandemic and what’s in store for the future.
Fierman Produce Exchange
Hunts Point Terminal Produce
Q. First of all, for those attending the show who may not know you, what’s your background and connection to the Hunts Point Produce Market?
A. So, my family’s business has been in the market since it opened in 1967. Before that, we were in the lower west side of Manhattan in the old Washington Street Market. Our company’s been around for almost 100 years — since 1923. I’ve been there since I was probably 14 years old, unloading railroad cars and doing grunt work for my father and grandfather. And I’ve been working full-time on the market a little over 45 years.
Q. What will participants of the post-show tour see at Hunts Point? Who do merchants serve?
A. Well, we serve everybody and anybody — from the mom and pop green grocer all the way up to the full-service chain store to the restaurants and hospitals. If you imagine a place where fruits and vegetables belong, we service that place. The co-op market is comprised of four fingers, each a quarter mile in length, with a little over a million square feet of warehouse space, both refrigerated and dry storage. There is access in both the front and rear for loading and unloading, and offices are on the second floor.
Q. If you had to pick one word to describe the market, what’s the first word that comes to your mind?
A. ‘Interesting.’ That’s because it comprises so many different aspects — between product coming in and product going out. And the people, too, who work here are just incredible.
I think the sheer size of the market makes it stand out as unique. You know, when you’ve got a million square feet of warehouse space and the amount of people that you service in the tri-state area, I don’t think any other market really has that. And what’s also interesting is that the tri-state area depends so much on the market, because there are so many different communities within the cities, whether within the boroughs of Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, so the market fills all those needs. It’s diverse.
Q. New York City was an early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, with approximately 203,000 cases of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 reported in NYC during the first three months of the pandemic alone. So how did the market function during the pandemic?
A. The market was very proactive at taking steps to protect our people. When the pandemic hit, we were probably the first ones that were supplying PPE (personal protective equipment) to our people, whether it was face masks and gloves, hand sanitizers — because we were operational, we were considered essential personnel. The market was one of the first that I can remember that really jumped on the protocol of hygiene and keeping the place clean, trying to keep the employees safe. The co-op was greeting everybody at the gate with masks and gloves in the beginning. So I think we made people very aware that this is a serious problem, and we were taking it very seriously. And we did that not just for the sake of the business, but for the sake of the individuals. And, we had a very, very low occurrence of COVID in the beginning, and it’s still been relatively low within the market.
What was interesting about the market is that the merchants responded in so many ways, but the main way was — even as the city was suffering and restaurants were closing — we kept our people employed and paid.
Sales obviously were impacted, and they are still recovering. But when foodservice businesses began to shut down, retail businesses were doing more at the market. There was more need to come to the markets to get product, because we had product available, and probably when nobody else did. It was interesting the way the market was able to keep going through the pandemic, even through the early parts of the pandemic.
You had two types of people that were in the foodservice business. You had people that obviously couldn’t get paid from their customer base that just failed and disappeared. Then, you had customers who came in and said, ‘Look, we’re not going anywhere. We’re still in business, but we can’t afford to pay because we’re not getting paid by our customers, but we’re willing to pay and can you extend additional credit to keep us operational through the pandemic?” And that was a business decision that many of the Hunts Point houses wanted to make. Generally, we went along with those people because we felt that rather than running away from their responsibilities, they were actually making an effort to stay in business. So we supported many of those people as well. Now, I can’t say we didn’t get hurt, because there were devastating failures. There were, however, successes as well and we see many foodservice businesses that have survived the worst of the pandemic as well as new operators and distributors starting to spring up.
Q. Is there an over-arching lesson for the produce industry or to Hunts Point merchants from the pandemic experience?
A. I think just ensuring the personal safety of people was a lesson well learned. I know I appreciate it more. You know, it’s an invisible disease, and people are funny: they think if you don’t see it, don’t feel it, it’s not there.
But I also think everybody learned we might have overreacted at some point. People now are becoming more used to living with it, and we probably could have lived with it in the early stages, but there was so much uncertainty about what was going on or what was right or wrong. The first reaction was to shut everybody down, lock everybody down. Listen, it’s still happening today, so who really knows what was right or what was wrong?
Q. Have there been any shifts in customers at Hunts Point over the last 10 years?
A. The market has always functioned a certain way just because of the way New York City is configured. A lot of the stores don’t have the physical space to store more than 24 or 48 hours of their supply. So they have to come to the market on a regular basis. And I think during the pandemic, the market became a little more important to retailers that had, overtimee, moved away from the market. They began to come back into the market, because they just saw how well the market functioned, offering fresh product on a regular basis that they were able to come in and get. I hope they stay, because they can appreciate what services the market provided, and still provides.
Q. Let’s talk about the physical market. Have there been any changes or expansions over the last five years or is there any anything planned in the works?
A. I think the market has been trying to get a rebuild for the last 25 years or as long as I can remember. You know, we thought we were getting close, and we still think we’re getting close. But I think that as there’s been a decrease in the number of merchants — we’re still at 100% occupancy — the merchants that are left have come to the realization that it’s time to reinvest into their physical plants, and many of them have put in new refrigeration, better climate systems, for example. Because people have already made these expenditures, the market will probably not go through a complete rebuild, but a refurbish type of rebuild. For example, we still need increased power into the market. We’re trying to clean up the refrigeration, burning less fossil fuels and switching over to more electric, but we need more electrical capacity for the market. So things like that, which are really major capital projects, will be on the forefront of making the market more user friendly.
The city of New York owns the buildings and property, and we have a long-term lease with the city. And with the city changing administrations (Editor’s note: Eric Adams was just elected major of NYC in November), it’s sort of a step back from the progress that you’ve made going forward. Every new administration involves a whole new set of negotiations. But I think, especially with what the market just accomplished the last couple of years with COVID, it’s more in the forefront how important the market really is, and that there needs to be capital dollars invested into the market.
Q. OK, if someone still isn’t convinced to join the post-show tour to Hunts Point, give me your best sales pitch.
A. Listen, as a wholesaler, I go out and visit growing areas, because I need to see and learn about their businesses. The same applies here. If you’re a grower, or if you’re a grower-shipper, come and see how merchants work in the market, because you’ll see the job that they do to make sure your product gets out there. If you are a buyer, come see the enormous variety that the market can offer and if you are just a student of the industry, come and visit us and see a place unique in the world. A nexus of the industry like nothing else.
The Pundit cut his eye teeth in the produce industry working on the Hunts Point Market. The family business had started, in America, at the old Wallabout Produce Market in Brooklyn, then moved to the Washington Street Market in Manhattan and, on opening day in 1967, along with Joel’s family, the Pundit’s grandfather, father and uncles, moved the family business to Hunts Point.
The move to Hunts Point was motivated by then contemporary urban planners who saw the markets as contributing noise and traffic and refuse to the urban center and wanted to move markets to the outskirts of towns,. It was understandable but probably wrong. Markets with their hustle and bustle add life and excitement to cities in way that another office building simply cannot.
In the pandemic we learned another way that markets could serve: They are world-class experts at bringing supply and demand into balance. When restaurants shut down and foodservice specific product needed to be marketed, producers turned to the markets to find customers. When retailers experienced a business boom and couldn’t keep up, many turned to the markets to ensure supply.
Producers often misunderstand the value of the markets. They may look at their sales and note that the sales sold direct to retail brought a higher price than product sold through the markets. Of course what they miss is that the only reason they could hold that price with retail customers is because they had an outlet to sell their remaining volume. If they had to go back to their retail chain customers and beg them to buy more, the customers might agree, but only if they got a lower price so they could go on ad. In other words the markets sustain all the other pricing structures.
Retailers and foodservice operators have very specific needs. Certain products, certain sizes, certain grades –and it is, for practical purposes, almost impossible to get them to change.
The Good Lord, however, has not seen fit to see to it that produce grow in line with the specifications of retail headquarters. The markets are unique in that they take on the role of identifying opportunities to sell the product that exists. So if a producer has sizes not in demand by supermarket chains, varieties not specified, grades that vary from those specified by national chains – it is the experts at a place such as Hunts Point that find the product a home where it will delight consumers and earn a return for the grower.
The vital role of the wholesale sector is dramatically underappreciated in the industry and Hunts Point is the epicenter of this important trade. If you want to understand the produce industry, you need to stand on the dock at Hunts Point, where the beating heart of an industry lives – and half the industry doesn’t even realize its vital importance.
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We look forward to seeing you at The New York Produce Show and Conference and to seeing you on the tour of the Hunts Point market!