Row Warriors

Vendors at historic Produce Row battle the forces of modern commerce

It's just after the morning rush. Brother fixes a busted crate. Jack talks to a customer about plants. Sparrows fly in and out of the big, open bay doors. Bobby Darin's on the radio, coming through a pair of scratchy speakers by the office door: "Someone sneakin' 'round the co-nuh/Could that someone be Mack the Knife?" Fran's at the kerosene burner, cooking up a mess of kielbasa, breakfast for the five or six guys who've been there since about 3 a.m. Fella walks up to Fran, shows him an invoice marked "Paid."

"Just so you know I'm not walking off with it," says the fella, Doug Weiss, who runs the Collinsville Farmers Market, a regular customer.

"I trust you like a brother," says Fran.
"Then you're a fool," Weiss shoots back.
"Yeah? Cain and Abel were brothers. You know what Cain did to Abel? That's what I'd do to you if you walked off with my produce."

It's all bluster and baloney. Razzing is a form of endearment on the Row.
A few hours earlier, at sunrise, Carmen Mannino had made his daily pilgrimage to Produce Row. Mannino, 48, runs a produce market on Highway N in Cottleville, in St. Charles County. He parks his truck at Franklin Produce. Shopping list in hand, he studies the offerings on display. Most of it looks good, especially the Washington State Fancy Red Delicious apples. Nice price on them, too, Carmen notes. His customers will snap them up. He makes a preliminary order: two crates of 88-count Red Delicious apples, a dozen Hawaiian pineapples, 90-count U.S. No. 1 Extra Fancy pears, 100-pound sacks of potatoes -- two No. 5 red and two No. 5 white -- and a couple of bales of Vidalia onions. Carmen comes to the strawberries. There's something about this particular load he isn't sure about, and he knows it's going to be a big weekend for strawberries -- that's always the case just before Mother's Day. He balks at the strawberries. "I'll let you know," he says.

Now, Carmen has been trading with Franklin Produce ever since he can remember. When Carmen was a kid, his father, a produce man, traded with the fathers of Fran and Brother. Carmen's grandfather traded with them, too. Carmen buys most of his produce from Franklin, and they take care of him, but no one's got a hard-on if Carmen wants to see what the neighbors have to offer. As far as the strawberries go, Carmen is going to "shop the street," look for quality in purchase.

So he goes to Mantia, to Heimos, to Independent, but not to every house, because he doesn't have loyalty to every house, even if one is 50 cents lower than the rest on a carton of greens or a peck of strawberries. Having seen all the prices, and the quality being equal, he may come back to Franklin: "Hey, your neighbor's two bits less on the same peck of strawberries. Can you beat his price?" And Fran may acquiesce: "Yeah all right, you got me this time." Or maybe Fran knows something that Carmen doesn't know. "You better double-check the quality," he may say, "because there were two loads of strawberries in the market this morning. We got the better grade." The transaction could go any number of ways -- the market isn't Famous-Barr, and it's OK to dicker -- or it may not happen at all. In this case, however, the strawberries look noticeably better over at Heimos, and the price is right. Carmen takes two pallets' worth, trading on the timeworn adage that governs every sale on Produce Row: Quality speaks for itself.

Produce Row is going full-tilt when most of us are asleep. The 21.5-acre complex, located on North Market one block east of North Broadway, sees some 18,000 tractor-trailers per year, each holding an average of 22 tons of produce. It is a trading hub that takes in buyers from about 150 miles in all directions, making the market a veritable fruit basket to the Midwest. From potatoes to pomegranates, the Row has it at one time or another, an ever-changing array of inventory. The collective produce carried by all the purveyors on the Row, representing harvests from growing regions in 49 states and 74 countries, arrives by the carlot. Much of it will go out by the pickup load. Some people confuse Produce Row with Soulard Market: Both are near the river, off Broadway; both carry volumes of produce. The distinction is that Soulard is a retail setup, whereas the Row is strictly limited to wholesale. In fact, Soulard vendors (farmers excepted) buy big at Produce Row. They and every other customer, including the St. Louis Zoo, must have a city-issued tax number to purchase anything on the Row.

It is a place of robust commerce with a colorful cast of characters that includes jobbers, brokers, lumpers, buyers, inspectors and truckers. The feel of it is old-timey, the sort of place that would inspire muscular poetry in a blue-collar bard, setting to meter the images of guys stomping around the docks all hours of the night, barking orders, making notations, moving produce-laden pallets with the motorized lift trucks called jeeps. Then, if it's cold or lonely, there are always a few jobbers gathered near one of the cylindrical kerosene heaters, a few choice spuds cooking on the grill for later, when the long hours cause a stomach to grumble.

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