SAN FRANCISCO — After more than six years of planning, the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market in mid-September signed the paperwork needed to start a major expansion project that will ultimately enlarge it by 60%.

Many of the market vendors, who are bursting at the seams, said they can’t wait for the additional space.

“It’s going to be good, but it’s going to take too long to get done, said a smiling David Camarda, a co-owner of North Bay Produce. “It’s like they can’t rebuild it fast enough.”

Scott Salisbury, a produce industry veteran and partner in S&L Wholesale Produce, said the market expansion proposal also brought people together.

“We focused on a common good,” he said. “Merchants have always been very supportive of the market, which I think is an anomaly to this market. It gives us a chance to gather as a group, as merchants, and make decisions and look at really how things will affect this market.”

New facilities should draw new customers and new vendors to the market, Salisbury said.

Stanley Corriea Jr., president of Stanley Produce Co. Inc. and president of the merchant association, said he’s among the tenants with too little space.

But it’s a good problem since it reflects on a thriving business, he said. In fact, Corriea runs his wholesale business out of one stall and his delivery business out of a stall further down the dock.

Jack Pizza, owner of Washington Vegetable Co. and past merchant association chief financial officer, pointed to the market’s vibrancy as the impetus behind the expansion.

“This market’s doing really well right now,” he said. “I think we have some forward thinking merchants as far as the product lines they carry. I think we’re very customer friendly. We need to make sure the customer has a good experience getting in and out of here fast.”

Pizza, who said he was in the process of obtaining food safety certification, said more modern facilities should make complying easier.

Bob Pizza, owner of What A Tomato Produce Co., said the expansion also should better position the 138-year-old market for the future.

“All of the bigger wholesalers down here do need more space,” he said. “If it all goes the way it’s supposed to, we should be good for the next 50 years or so.”


Construction set to begin

The three-phase project will ultimately add 200,000 square feet to the market’s existing 300,000-square-foot footprint, said Michael Janis, market general manager. It also will rebuild and modernize existing structures as well as reroute a street that currently cuts the market in half and creates safety issues.

The first phase will involve constructing an 86,000-square-foot two-story building with closed docks that will be built to LEED gold standards — one of the top rankings for environmentally friendly construction.

Janis said he expected the building, valued in the low $20 millions, to be completed in 10 to 12 months.

The market also has undergone what he referred to as “retenanting.” Tenants signed new leases this spring and some requested new locations that offered larger spaces.

VegiWorks Inc., for example, plans to leave its 12,500-square-foot facility in October and move across Jerrold Avenue into Earl’s Organic Produce’s former 20,000-square-foot building. Earl’s is moving next door into an even larger facility that opened up when Whole Foods sought a much larger building off the market.

The last time the market expanded was in 2000, when the Earl’s/Whole Foods building was built.

“We’ve been able to really draw upon that experience,” Janis said. “There are very few things we would do differently.”


Public investment

He also credited city and county leaders for support of the project. The city and county own the land on which the market sit as well as the lot destined for the new building. The two entities last year signed a 60-year lease with the market. The market’s old 50-year lease was set to expire this year.

Without having that type of long-term commitment, Janis the market would not have been able to obtain the necessary financing and proceed with such an expansive project.

“It shows that San Francisco sees the value of the market,” Janis said. “They see the economic contributions we make. They see the importance that the market plays in the food economy.”

Under the plan, money put aside from rents will be used for initial construction expenses. The market will borrow the remainder, using rent revenue to repay the loan.

The improvement plan is being guided by a newly created governing board, a third of which is merchants. Remaining members come from other nonprofit groups or are volunteer members selected for their individual expertise, such as branding.