Row Warriors

Vendors at historic Produce Row battle the forces of modern commerce

Twin rows of two-story concrete buildings, 1,225 feet long and 114 feet wide, make up the market. The broad thoroughfare between these buildings is called "the street." When buyers are looking for the best deals, hoping to cash in on the intense competition among the purveyors, they "walk the street." The 98 stalls on the row are occupied by 57 companies, including wholesalers, food distributors, brokers, a drayage (short-distance hauling) firm and market offices. Above the doorway of each set of stalls, 3-foot white letters on a green background spell out the name of the house: Heimos, Moon, United, Sherman, Adolph & Ceresia, Mantia and more.

The first seven stalls on the odd-numbered side of the street are taken by Franklin Produce. It is a prime location.

Produce Row was inaugurated by families, small tribes of produce purveyors. In 1946, Sam and Frank Cusumano opened Franklin Produce at Fourth and Franklin Avenue (now Delmar). The brothers built the business in the '50s and '60s, catering to the numerous corner groceries and peddlers who hawked produce in neighborhoods throughout the city. Although times have changed and many wholesalers have taken on partners outside the family, at Franklin Produce -- "carlot receivers and jobbers" -- business is still conducted solely by the Cusumano family (cousins to several other folks in various echelons in the local food trade, including the Cusumano clan that runs the famous Kemoll's Restaurant). There's Jack -- 38, nice guy, transparent, somewhat formal, calls customers "Sir" and "Ma'am," works the flowering-plant side. There's Fran -- 51, stocky, ready smile, gregarious. The talker. Fran's been on the Row since he was a kid; says he's been working seven days a week since he got out of the service in '68. And there's Brother -- always with the cap, the lowered specs and the chewed stogie. Brother, 70, given name Francis, runs the business. Even nonfamily say he's the most respected man on Produce Row. He can be Santa Claus to certain down-and-out buyers, those he knows and trusts, giving credit on a handshake. Fran's sister, Nettie Olsen (nee Cusumano), works the books in the office upstairs. Fran and Brother are first cousins, the sons of Sam and Frank, respectively. Jack is Brother's son. Capisci?

Early on a cold Saturday in mid-April, four guys -- "bummers," Brother calls them -- sit around the kerosene burner, smoking and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups: three black guys in caps, lounging on what looks to be the rear seat of a bus, and one grizzled old white guy called Harpo, real name Anthony Ventimiglia, tilted back in a ragged office chair. Retired years ago from the market, Harpo, 76, still shows up at Franklin every day just to be a part of it all. He used to be a tomato packer, and he still can't resist the occasional need to cull. Even now, he says, "when something comes through and doesn't look good, I'll go though the box, take the bad ones out." The three guys on the bus seat are in-house laborers. Normally they would be readying orders and loading them into trucks. Not today, however. Today is slow. Only in the last five years has Franklin Produce gotten into the flowering-plant business, and though the dock area is awash with marigolds, geraniums, azaleas and New Guinea impatiens, the cold has kept the nursery and garden folks away. Instead, a few produce buyers straggle in from outlying areas.

What produce the Franklin house has in inventory is displayed just outside the bay door of No. 3; avocados from California, honeydew melons from Guatemala and potatoes from Colorado rest alongside yams from Louisiana, cherry tomatoes from Mexico and red Anjou pears from Argentina. In sacks and crates, they lie gleaming in the early-morning light, awaiting the educated scrutiny of a prospective buyer -- an independent grocer, perhaps, the stall-tender at a small community market, or even that endangered species, the solitary produce huckster.

Butch Kabat backs his pickup to the Franklin dock. He gets out, a big man with an open face. A bit of gab while his order is being filled reveals that two years back Kabat decided to get out of the restaurant business and into the produce business. The family-run Fresh Produce Co. is located in Tamaroa, Ill., just outside DuQuoin. He's buying potatoes, onions, tomatoes and lettuce to sell to restaurants and country stores. "Most don't have time to shop for themselves," says Kabat of his 32 accounts. "Having been in the restaurant business, I understand when they tell me they want quality and feel they don't get it from the bigger suppliers. They want a case of half-green/half-ripe bananas, that's what they'll get. The bigger suppliers will give them a case of all green or all ripe." The name of the game is price and quality. Wholesalers such as the Cusumanos buy good quality in big lots and sell it in smaller lots -- the less purchased, the more it's marked up. When not filling orders, they constantly work the phones and the fax machines, getting quotes from brokers, sending quotes out to customers. The vicissitudes of a fickle market keep the wholesalers hopping. "It changes every two to three days," says Fran, referring to product availability and price. "Not enough sun, not enough rain, a freeze in Florida, whatever, it changes the supply and demand. Prices seesaw. There's always the temptation to buy when prices are high. Buying scared, you have to resist that. You learn to buy when prices are right, and that takes experience. You make mistakes along the way."

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