NEW YORK — Rolling up to the entrance of the Hunts Point Produce Market in Bronx, N.Y., feels like passing through a security check point for an international operation of gargantuan proportions — because it is.
Once inside, visitors enter another world, a miniature town that settled there in 1967, building roots with its own public works, security team, bosses upstairs and hustling laborers, sellers and buyers below.
That’s what a couple of dozen visitors experienced on a bus tour from the New York Produce Show and Conference in Manhattan Dec. 10-13.
As workers were winding down their day’s business of trading fresh fruits and vegetables hailing from 49 states and 55 countries, the visitors ambled around Fierman Produce Exchange’s two-story-high stacks of fragrant yellow onions.
Nearby, they saw a worker sorting tomatoes on E. Armata Fruit & Produce Inc.’s conveyor belt. Trucks had pulled up and plugged into electrical outlets to keep freight refrigerated. On those outdoor rows, a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables engulfed the senses.
“This is an outdoor mall that happens to sell produce. It’s like the largest store in the universe,” said Bob Ferla, director of operations for Fierman, a founding merchant.
Hunts Point is the largest wholesale produce market in the world, where merchants run 32 firms on the sprawling 113 acres, which handles 1 million to 3 million boxes of fresh produce at a time, said Matthew D’Arrigo, vice president of D’Arrigo Bros. Co. He’s also co-president of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative Association Inc.
It’s big money: The market generates gross sales of nearly $2.5 billion a year, D’Arrigo said.
By supplying more than 20 million people in the 50-mile radius of New York, the market feeds roughly 9% of the entire U.S. population, said Myra Gordon, the cooperative association’s executive director, as she briefed visitors.
Yet in a world of burgeoning online startups, this is a haven for the old-school. It’s a place where many merchants are descendants of the original owners who sold vegetables on push-carts and then at the lower Manhattan Washington Market of 1821 and its northern offshoot, Bronx Terminal Market, which eventually gave way to Hunts Point.
“It’s a part of you. It’s every fragment of your body,” said D’Arrigo, who started working at Hunts Point when he was 14 and plans to help his five nephews and one niece carry on the business one day. Even today, these merchants make deals with handshakes.
“This is a hands-on environment, and it becomes like a large family. They are a very dedicated group of people, which is hard to duplicate in today’s world,” Gordon said.
When the 9 p.m. bell clangs on Sunday, trucks parade in and pull up to the docks, unfurling their back doors to delve into the night-time frenzy of price haggling akin to the stock market exchange of old.
“It’s like a horse race,” said Joel Fierman, president of his namesake firm. He’s the other co-president of the cooperative association.
D’Arrigo added with a laugh: “More like a demolition derby.”
About 6,000 people do business daily at the market, he said.
The merchants outgrew their Hunts Point location five years after opening, but there’s no adjacent space to expand in this already dense city, they said.
The market has shifted toward so much product diversification that buyers can find 50 different brands of broccoli, D’Arrigo said. Thousands of groceries and restaurants comprise the customer base.
“The chefs here want specialized products if they want to stand out and be a titan in the crowd. They’ll find that here,” Fierman said.
Delivery sales have jumped from 5% to 50% compared to foot-traffic sales since the start, D’Arrigo said.
As visitors toured, merchants such as Nathel & Nathel and E. Armata shared about their recent high scores on food-safety audits and traceability technology — important developments considering recent North American outbreaks elsewhere.
Also, merchants don’t waste food when they can help it.
“I have to say, merchants here have a big heart,” Gordon said.
And when it comes to each other, the vendors have a love-hate relationship, they say.
“We’re all competing, but there’s a mutual respect. Everyone has a niche,” said Nick Armata of his namesake firm. He laughed.
“We all know what everybody is doing. It’s like high school.”