ST. LOUIS — Wholesalers and retailers agree the St. Louis Terminal Produce Market may not be the biggest or most modern terminal in the country but it remains a force in the region’s produce industry.
Dating to 1953, the terminal, affectionately called Produce Row by those who know St. Louis, has been in a rebuilding mode for a couple of years. New paint, new security fencing, new asphalt and a new market manager in the past two years have given the market a new face.
“We still haven’t bought all the property from the railroad that we plan to, but we have the OK to go ahead with the fencing on the back, and we are moving ahead,” said market manager Pat Kelley.
Kelley said the market is 100% occupied, even though the total number of companies on the terminal is less than it was 20 years ago. The terminal sits on a 31-acre site just north of the Gateway Arch on the banks of the Mississippi River. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains an office on the terminal, as does Springfield, Ill.-based produce brokerage Tom Lange Co.
“The economy remains fragile, but Produce Row is very healthy and vibrant,” said Jeff Moore, vice president of the Midwest sales region for Tom Lange Co.
“Sometimes I think locally and regionally this terminal flies under the radar. People don’t seem to know about it, but anyone in retail or foodservice in this area who doesn’t know about Produce Row should find out about it.”
One of the things that keeps the terminal market so high in Moore’s esteem is the quality of produce available there. He said by maintaining an office on the terminal he and other buyers can see what they are getting and the wholesalers can see what the competition is doing.
“I think it keeps the costs low here because they see what each other is doing, and they have to respond to keep their customers,” Moore said.
That high quality keeps retailers like Straub’s Markets coming back, said Greg Lehr, produce buyer and category specialist for the local chain of four up-scale grocery stores. He said Straub’s gets almost half of its fresh produce from the terminal market.
Mike O’Brien, vice president for produce and floral for the St. Louis-based Schnucks Markets, said his chain also does a significant amount of business with Produce Row companies.
“They frequently offer us things that other suppliers can’t,” O’Brien said. “Specifically their value-added items, like chopped onions, give us and our customers what we need.”
Much of the fresh-cut produce available on Produce Row comes from the terminal’s largest single occupant, United Fruit & Produce Co. In its third generation on the terminal, in the past two years the company has expanded to include a fresh-cut operation in a building across the street from the main terminal market buildings. Officials there said they don’t have any plans move.
Other companies may not have been on the terminal as long as United, but their officials also said that the market’s future is secure, and they plan to continue doing business there.
Dale Vaccaro of Vaccaro & Sons Produce has been on Produce Row for about 12 years. His company supplies foodservice operations and local grocery stores. He said the weather has disrupted some supplies and delayed some harvests, but his business hasn’t suffered too much.
“We’re treading water like so many others in this economy, but we are pretty pleased about how things are going. We are busy and optimistic,” Vaccaro said.
Down the market, Ole Tyme Produce Inc. director of security and HACCP Don Colombo said foodservice customers have maintained their order levels pretty well. However there have been some low points.
“Mother’s Day wasn’t as good this year for restaurants,” Colombo said. “In general I don’t think people are eating out as much, and we are seeing that in our business.”
Colombo is confident the economy will improve, though, and spent money in the past year to pour all new floors in the tomato rooms at Ole Tyme. The company also installed walls that make wash downs easier and enhance Ole Tyme’s food safety program.
Another foodservice wholesaler, Sunfarm Inc., hasn’t really seen much of a dip in business, even during the past two years of uncertain economic conditions.
President John Pollaci said he believes Sunfarm has been able to maintain a consistent level of business partly because of its client list. The company has been on Produce Row for 20 years.
“We tend to supply the higher end restaurants like the Four Seasons and the Marriott at Union Station,” Pollaci said. “I don’t think that sector has been hit as hard.
People who can eat at those restaurants keep going out to dinner even in a recession.”