ST. LOUIS — It’s been there more than 56 years. Twin rows of two-story, concrete buildings, 1,225 feet long, 114 feet wide, taking up 21.5 acres near North Broadway and North Market, just about a mile form this city’s famous Gateway Arch.
And yet, the inhabitants of Produce Row — hundreds of shippers, packers, dock loaders, managers — will tell you their enclave, the center of the produce industry for much of Missouri, Illinois and surrounding states, is the best kept secret in town.
“No one really knows about this place,” said Tom Pupillo, broker and salesman for H.R. Bushman & Son Corp. “They don’t know that we’re down here. Most people think we’re like a farmers market, like Soulard Market.”
Pupillo was referring to one of the most popular destinations in the St. Louis area on Saturday mornings, Soulard Farmers Market, the oldest farmers market in the area, with origins dating back to 1779. If only folks knew as much about venerable Produce Row, which opened at its current location Feb. 3, 1953.
“It’s kind of a secret down here,” said Sam Sanfillipo, chief executive officer for Sun Farm Foodservice, echoing Pupillo’s sentiment that most people thought of Produce Row as a farmers market.
Currently, 21 companies inhabit Produce Row’s 98 stalls, ranging from wholesalers, to foodservice companies, to brokerages. That’s less than half of what it was just 10 years ago, when 57 companies operated along “The Row.”
Still, those 21 companies simply occupy more stalls, making Produce Row a busy place most days — and nights.
“I think we’re 100% occupied,” said Vince Mantia, president of William Mantia Fruit Co. “There are opportunities down here to stay in business.”
Most of the hustle and bustle around the row takes place at night or in the early mornings, when most of the 18,000 tractor-trailers that visit the place annually come and go, leaving before the crack of dawn to deliver a shipment of goods to near or distant retailers or foodservice companies.
“This is one of the most competitive markets around down here,” said Jeff Moore, vice president-sales for the Midwest region for Tom Lange Co. Inc., Springfield, Ill. “But it’s a friendly competitiveness. It all boils down to service, relationships and quality.”
The space between the two rows of buildings, which also serves as a parking lot, is known simply as “the street.”
“Our guys walk the street at 6:30 every morning to see product, what everyone else is bringing in,” Moore said. “We’re seeing what we’re selling. That’s an advantage of being on Produce Row.”