Row Warriors

Vendors at historic Produce Row battle the forces of modern commerce

Jasper and other well-wishers notwithstanding, the larger question remains: With all the buy-outs, grocery chains gobbling each other up, buying direct with increasing incidence, will Produce Row still be around in 20 years, or will it go the way of the Kansas City wholesale market, which at one time was similar in scope to Produce Row and now has only four produce houses left?

"It will survive," says Fran. "For one thing, the Kansas City market didn't have a Soulard Market to fall back on." He cites the central location, the nexus of interstates surrounding the market, as well as the sizeable surrounding customer base -- west to the Lake of the Ozarks, north to Quincy and Hannibal, northeast to Springfield and Decatur, south to Poplar Bluff and Carbondale. "There's no competition within 150 miles, and there's deals to be had in St. Louis because of the cheaper freight out of Florida. So, yeah, this place is going to be around for a while."

Produce Row opened at its current location on Feb. 3, 1953, though it existed elsewhere, under different names, long before that. In the time of Laclede and Chouteau, a loosely formed market was, by convenience, located along the levee, where merchants were able to meet the boats carrying commodities up and down the Mississippi. Then, around 1875, the merchants moved their stores to a 36-acre tract along Third and Fourth Streets between Biddle on the north and Washington on the south (around where Planet Hollywood now stands), where they sold for the next 75 years. The place became known as Commission Row, a conglomerate of homes and business storefronts converted to stalls where meat and poultry were sold alongside fruits and vegetables. The "little bitty stores with no refrigeration," as Brother remembers them, did not exactly make for an ideal or sanitary situation, according to some old-timers, but Commission Row was where you went for what you needed.

By the late '40s, construction of what is now the Martin Luther King Bridge began displacing some businesses. The merchants banded together, forming the St. Louis Fruit and Produce Association. They pooled their resources and, in 1950, with the purchase of land from the Wabash Railroad, began the construction of a wholesale terminal market, close to Interstate 70, the current Produce Row. The new facility was to be as modern and convenient as any ever built, with high ceilings for upward storage and railroad tracks coming right up to the back docks. The produce came by boxcars up until the 1960s. In the late '50s and early '60s the trucks started coming.

Gus Mantia, at 84 the oldest purveyor on the Row, remembers when the proprietors moved en masse to the new digs. "We thought it was a real good deal," he says, a sheaf of orders in his hand. "Each company came down here and picked where they wanted to be. Back then, the limit was two stalls per company. We just couldn't believe how huge it was -- 2,500-square-foot warehouses; that was a luxury. In the old place, just to get the orders, you had to run up and down the basement steps."

Today, business is done mostly at night, anytime from 8 p.m. until noon the next day. But it wasn't that way in the beginning. At first, the market would open at 2 a.m. for the out-of-towners, because they needed a head start in getting back to Decatur or Sedalia before sunrise to sell or deliver the produce. For the locals, it was 4 a.m. But some of the wholesalers, trying to get the edge, started sneaking customers in, and then more started doing it, which caused the market to open earlier and earlier until the hours became what they are now.

A pact was formed at the time of incorporation: The individual companies would be shareholders of St. Louis Produce Market. Today, 21 companies on Produce Row are shareholders in the private enterprise. The structure is not unlike that of a condominium: They own their own units (and may sublease if they wish), yet pay rent for the upkeep of the market, street and building repairs, guard salaries and so on. A board of directors makes the rules, sets the standards, plots the course and hires the big chiefs.

"Our whole purpose is to get the stuff in the trucks and get it out to the stores before rush hour. Those restaurants serving breakfast at 6-7 a.m.? We've got those trucks loaded and headed out two hours beforehand." Clarence Hughes, the market manager with a mug like a Celtic chieftain's, is talking about the market's brawny role in providing fresh produce for some 4 million folks dwelling in the heartland, but what's really on his mind this day is waste.

"The wholesalers have to pitch 12 to 18 percent of their produce," Hughes remarks. "Maybe they don't ripen properly; they're not the right size; they've gotten bruised, whatever. Americans buy food by look," he stresses, "not by taste." The phone on his desk rings. Hughes listens for a moment and says to the party at the other end, "You tell that guy if he throws one more pallet in the Dumpster, he loses his contract." There's no compromise in his tone. "We don't need wood in the landfill," he says, placing the phone back on its cradle. "It's expensive and unnecessary."

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