NEW YORK – It was the wee hours of the morning, and the docks at New York's largest produce market were bustling in the cold. Thanksgiving was inching closer, and sacks of onions, potatoes and carrots were flying off the shelves.
Amidst the whir, buyers and sellers were finalizing deals on tomatoes, mangoes and lettuce. Trucks stood ready to haul away the bounty — a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables destined for supermarket produce aisles, household refrigerators and, eventually, millions of mouths across the Northeast during the gluttonous holidays.
“This time of year is our busiest. We have Thanksgiving, we have Christmas and New Year’s. All of these are very big family and big-eating holidays,” said Stefanie Katzman, the executive vice president of S. Katzman Produce, one of the country's largest and oldest produce dealers, which operates at the Hunts Point Produce Market.
The market is a sprawling collection of wholesalers that make it the nation’s busiest distribution center for fruits and vegetables, responsible for more than 60% of the daily stock for New York City and feeds over 30 million customers, according to another Hunts Point wholesaler, E. Armata Inc.
Thanksgiving is especially busy time of year because the quintessentially American feast is widely celebrated across the United States.
“Our market as a whole does about three times as much business as normal on a day like today,” Katzman said while leading a tour Tuesday morning of her company’s cavernous warehouse, which extends a quarter mile (0.4 kilometers) and room for produce across nearly two football fields.
In one huge room, the whiff of onions filled the cold air. In another, the scent of berries wafted through the room — although Katzman's biggest seller, strawberries, were in short supply because of inclement weather that wreaked havoc on the growing season.
“Our market is really unique. It’s kind of like the stock market, but a little bit more intense. Because our ‘stocks’ are perishable, we can’t hold on to them for too long hoping they go up in value,” Katzman said.
Not only can the place be likened as a stock market, but it is also a Grand Central station of sorts with delivery trucks in and out of the Bronx facility.
In all, Hunts Point's wholesalers distribute 2.5 billion pounds of produce a year, with about 30 million pounds having moved on Tuesday alone. The produce ends up at places like Whole Foods, high-end grocers and specialty markets, as well smaller mom-and-pop outlets.
Michael Rubinsky, a buyer from Market Basket, a gourmet grocery, makes the hour’s drive from Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, three times a week to inspect the goods.
“I come for the basics — everything like celery, lettuce, strawberries and potatoes — but quality is No. 1,” he said. “I check the quality and load everything on the truck.”
Charlie Mule, one of Katzman’s produce salesmen, said consumers don't realize where their produce comes from.
“You've eaten our stuff without you even knowing you've eaten our stuff,” said Mule. “If you go to a restaurant or store you probably don't realize the whole scope of how it got there before you put it in your refrigerator or on your plate.”