The nearly 140-year-old San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market has discovered its fountain of youth.
The market has initiated aggressive outreach efforts, an equally aggressive recycling program and even joined the social media fraternity — all of this just a few years after rumors of pending extinction.
The market is nearing a new lease on life — literally — and will soon embark on multimillion dollar improvement projects that include an expansion. The market has completed the required environmental reviews and other necessary entitlements, said Michael Janis, general manager.
“The last piece is a new ground lease with the city of San Francisco,” he said. “The schedule has us bringing that to the city’s legislative process in early 2012.”
The expansion property is adjacent to the existing market, Janis said.
No major hurdles are foreseen to finalizing the new lease. The city has been very supportive, Janis said.
New to the market office is a business development and customer liaison director.
“Our goal is to have someone out beyond the market connecting the market with existing customers and potential customers,” Janis said.
That the Salinas and San Joaquin valleys are within a couple of hours of driving time is one of the market’s greatest strengths and liabilities.
“One of our challenges is the double-edged sword of being so close to growing regions,” Janis said.
The proximity of the valleys tends to encourage direct buys from grower-shippers, he said.
“We must get out there and articulate the value of the market.” Janis said.
Yet another of the market’s outreach legs of late focuses on introducing the market to policymakers and others who may not be familiar with the market.
“It has been interesting to see the recognition that the markets really do play an infrastructure role,” Janis said. “It really resonates.”
The market’s green effort is saving merchants $150,000 annually in carting costs, Janis said. The merchants operate independently, but the market office is the coordinator that has pushed the market’s diversion rate above 80%, he said.
Shrink wrap is baled and sent overseas to a recycler. Plastic corner boards go to a recycler in Georgia. Plastic bean crates are used by other merchants for deliveries. The newest of the recycling efforts sends the market’s Styrofoam-type waste to yet another recycler.
Another green project that’s gaining traction is using alternative fuels for the delivery fleets, a movement spearheaded by Earl Herrick, owner of Earl’s Organic Produce. The hurdle, Herrick said, is overcoming the resistance of the company from which he leases the truck.
But he’s optimistic the change will happen.
“There will be a critical mass at some point where enough of their clients are asking for alternative fuels,” Herrick said.
Another Herrick goal is sustainable electric power.
“I’d love to get solar on our facility,” he said, “and I’m pushing the market to keep thinking about those kinds of things.”
While some of the market’s merchants are social media sophisticates, the market itself is a newcomer to Twitter, Janis said.
“Our goal is to raise the profile of the market and to connect the market in a way people may not think about,” he said. “We’re tweeting about the enormous amount of products available, but also about life on the market, groups that are visiting, food policy issues — all sorts of things.”
The market’s tweets are not necessarily targeting any specific group.
“We’re taking the view that the world of the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market is one of different types of communities, be it people in the produce industry or people in the food industry to people who are interested in how food systems work, people who are interested in how we connect within the economy,” Janis said.
“We’re purposely keeping it very broad. It’s one piece of the strategy of branding the market and raising the profile of the market.”
The ever-changing nature of the internet is not easy task, said Frank Ballentine, president and general manager of Greenleaf Produce. There are two concerns, he said.
“One is staying current on the technology, of being able to use the Facebooks and Twitters and the business software systems that allow that type of communicating, and the second thing is to make sure we have the people that are on top of the new trends,” Ballentine said.
The cast of merchants at the San Francisco market continues to evolve with a blend of old line houses and start-ups. Internally, the merchants point to three specific business models: pure wholesalers, pure distributors and those who specialize in a single commodity.
“The majority of our businesses are hybrids, which do both street business as well as distribution and deliveries,” Janis said.
What were once labeled ethnic produce categories continue to grow.
“Nonethnic stores are carrying more and more ethnic or international products,” Janis said.
That view is reinforced by Ballentine, who said he believes catering to minority ethnic populations is a strong trend in the food industry. Changing trends, however, go beyond what commodities are popular, he said.
“We believe food trends are changing and that consumers’ purchasing habits are changing,” Ballentine said.
In its efforts to stay abreast of new trends, Greenleaf has launched market research projects, he said.