Row Warriors

Vendors at historic Produce Row battle the forces of modern commerce

In an office the size of a coatroom, the history of the company in pictures tacked to the walls, Brother talks about how the business has changed over the years: "In the beginning of this market, everyone specialized. You saw Kincaid for celery, and he made a living just with celery because he bought by the carlot. We put celery on our walk, we'd die with it. That's the way it was. You saw Moon for tomatoes, Kelly for horseradish, somebody else for lettuce. We were the cauliflower kings. Then, it switched. The buyers wanted one-stop shopping; everybody started handling everything. It's all diversified now."

Then there was another disturbing trend: Business started to wane. Oh, it didn't happen all of a sudden or for one particular reason but crept up on the purveyors like pernicious anemia. To hear Fran, Brother and others tell it, the middleman, the wholesaler, is being squeezed out. Between the brokers muscling in on customers and the food chains buying direct, the customer base is dwindling, causing dog-eat-dog competition. The evolution of the supermarket is reflected in the prevailing trend that bigger is better is less expensive and the hell with the small fry who get washed up on shore and left to rot. Ergo, the small grocers, the mom-and-pop stores that once existed on every corner, the hucksters -- such as Pete Daleo and Charlie Cillo, who drove the neighborhoods and peddled produce from the back of their trucks -- many of those folks who once came to the market daily, replenishing stores, have been absorbed or eliminated by the chains. C'est la vie. And unless they're temporarily short of something, the chains bypass the wholesalers, buying direct from the shipper, just as the wholesalers do.

"Used to be we didn't worry about Heimos or United because we had plenty of customers," says Fran, jangling the change in his pockets, "but now, since business declined, we're all fighting for the same trade."

As a result, the ranks of the wholesalers have declined through attrition. "From '53 up until, oh, '62, these 98 stalls were taken up by as many as 85 wholesalers," says Brother, sales book in hand. "There's just eight now, but then every little house had a unit. But what happened over time was, somebody dies or quits and there's no one to take their place, they get bought out by existing companies, usually a neighbor wanting to expand." Case in point: United Produce. In the last decade, as neighboring companies have folded, the Row's largest wholesaler has assimilated their units and warehousing until United now claims the lion's share, 31 stalls. Conversely, hardly any new companies have come aboard in later years, Sunfarm and Mr. B's being the exceptions.

To stress the point, Brother brings out a stack of black-and-white 8-by-10s showing the early days of the Row. "See that?" he asks, pointing to an old panel truck in the photo. The truck is lettered with a company name. "G.A. Marsh," he says, "one of the driving forces in the move to the new location, gone." He lays out the pictures, runs through a roll call of bygone purveyors, many of whom were friends and associates. Weinstein, gone. Schwartz, gone. Mike Regina, gone. Lombardo, Friedmeyer, Niedenberg, Hollman, New Market, Bolsano -- gone, gone and gone.

Well, nobody ever said competition wasn't a bitch, but that doesn't make it any less of a kick in the ass. For one thing, the dynasties on Produce Row are stopped short. There's a Charlie Gallagher Jr. at United, and a fourth-generation Mantia over at the banana house, but by and large, the sons aren't replacing the fathers. Even Fran, who revels in the business, doesn't want any of his three school-age offspring stepping into his boots one day. Not enough to go around. "When our fathers were here, this place took care of five families -- their food, clothes, education," he says. "That just isn't the case anymore. Everybody's selling more by volume, and the profit margin hasn't gone up with inflation."

But it's not just the downturn in volume that keeps the sons and daughters from taking over the family business. If the competition's tough, the hours are tougher. Twelve- to 15-hour days are the norm on Produce Row. "The old guys," says Fran, in a sort of perverse boast, "they worked until they dropped. You couldn't get them away from this business. My dad and my uncle, even in their 80s, put in 14 hours a day. They were all that way. We grew up in this business -- it's in our blood, let us be nuts for working these hours -- but kids today want to have a life outside work." Indeed, they certainly don't want the insulated existence of Joe Bohac, proprietor of the now-defunct Hollman Commission Co., who, years ago, in gruff summation of those who grouse about the hours, remarked: "If you don't like it, get out. You're never home anyway, so you may as well like it here."

The phone rings. Fran gets it. It's an order from Pete's Shur-Sav, an independent grocer with three outlets in St. Louis. Good, steady customers such as Pete's and Stelmacki's Super Market out in North County and Doug Weiss from the Collinsville Farmers Market are what keep Franklin Produce afloat. Unlike United and Sherman -- which get at least a portion of their business from Dierbergs and Schnucks, respectively -- Franklin's customer base is the small independents, the fruit-store proprietors, and some days it seems as if there aren't enough of them to go around. To some degree, customer loyalty can help offset the occasional slump. You take a regular such as Jasper Giardina, the Cherokee Street radio-museum owner, who comes to Franklin about every other day to get the good stuff for his famous fruit baskets, frequently touted by Charles Brennan on KMOX. Franklin will have Jasper's business so long as Brother's around. "This guy took care of me when I was broke," says Giardina unabashedly. "I couldn't get a nickel on the street, and Brother gave me credit. That's what you call trust, and you don't see much of that anymore."

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