Plant & Produce
In the early morning hours, when time seems suspended, metro Detroit’s produce industry works overtime to meet the region’s insatiable demand for all things exotic.
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Slipping sideways through rubber-strip curtains into the historic Detroit Produce Terminal, a world-renowned repository of fruits, vegetables, spices, and edible flowers, is an effervescent adventure for the rare visitor. Security procedures, to say the least, preclude pedestrian foot traffic.
Safety is another major concern. Entering the Detroit Produce Terminal is akin to crossing a fault line. Warning beeps blast as forklifts, loaded with pallets of produce or skids of vegetables, narrowly miss each other while they maneuver through the twin, cavernous brick buildings.
Much of the produce arriving by rail or semi truck in the pre-dawn hours finds its way onto area restaurant and dinner tables by evening — from The Lark in West Bloomfield Township to Streetside Seafood in Birmingham to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. The haul might include sweet, seedless watermelons on a snowy February day, or crisp, juicy apples in the stifling heat of August.
With rare exception, every vegetable or piece of fruit bought from an independent grocer or gourmet market in southeast Michigan or southern Ontario since 1929 has passed through the stalls in the terminal’s historic buildings, which are nearly the size of Ford Field. But as quality, consumer palates, and transportation have evolved and improved, the terminal’s business plan has had to keep pace. The phenomenon is so profound that some longtime merchants say they are, at times, overwhelmed by the multitude of requests — spurred in large part by a growing fascination with culinary masterpieces created within the confines of 30-minute cable TV shows.
The Cable Factor
Prices and produce offerings have traditionally been impacted by fluctuations in economic conditions, fuel costs, and weather patterns. But in recent years, there’s been another shift — more-educated consumers are increasingly dictating a greater percentage of the supply. Chalk some of that up to the popularity of a number of TV food shows.
“Take lemongrass. Who ever heard of lemongrass?” asks Don Geha, vice president of Coosemans Worldwide in Detroit. “All of a sudden we get a big order for lemongrass because some cook on the Food Network is saying, ‘This is what you do with it.’ And the next thing you know, we got 10 guys coming in saying, ‘Do you have lemongrass?’ ” Geha, who has worked for a number of distributors at the terminal since the 1970s, says that although Coosemans now sells a wide array of produce, it is still known for specialty items such as herbs, yucca, starfruit, and edible orchids.
Fred Misuraca, owner of Royal Banana Co. in Detroit, laughs when pointing out the Hawaiian sweet potato, which is actually purple inside. Celebrity chefs have influenced not just what Misuraca sells, but the varieties, as well. “We sell a lot of ginger, and I use it all the time. But now people say they want a ginger from Peru, or from China, or from Hawaii — yes, their specifics are that defined. Some of it’s more stringy, some of it’s more tender, some is more useful for steaming. We never saw this when I was growing up. The only ginger I used to see was ginger ale.”
Geha also recalls a time when corn only came in yellow. “Then, all of the sudden, someone had bi-color corn, and now we seldom sell yellow corn,” he says, adding that the same thing happened when seedless watermelon came on the market 10 years ago. “Now I’ll sell five skids of seedless to one skid of seeded.”
In cooler months, Geha says he’ll sell two truckloads of watermelons per week (80,000 pounds). But in the heat of the summer, that’s jacked up to 20 loads per week. “[People in] this town love their watermelon,” he says. While watermelon is a summer tradition, he gives some of the credit to the benefit of the melon’s healthy lycopene content and a growing trend toward personal wellness.
“There are a lot of people going organic now,” Geha continues. “But organics don’t have the shelf life because they don’t have the chemicals that keep the stuff fresh. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand.”
Phil Riggio, owner of Aunt Mid’s in Detroit, says the company started an organic line with 60 to 70 items. Soon they found there were definite duds — such as organic golden beets and organic pineapples — as well as more promising items like mini carrots, celery hearts, broccoli, daikon, and herbs. “Organics used to be crazy costly,” he says. Today, thanks to more practice and better processes, organic farmers don’t lose as much of their crop to insects, mold, and yeast. “It still costs more, but it’s not the crazy cost,” Riggio says.
Supply Meets Demand
Built by Green Real Estate Co. in 1929, a joint subsidiary of the Pennsylvania, Pere Marquette, and Wabash railroad concerns, the Detroit Produce Terminal and its perishable contents have long been the envy of the world, says Joel Stone, a Detroit Historical Society curator. The terminal has benefited greatly from Detroit’s manufacturing industry, which built up a vast distribution network starting in the early 1900s and is still considered one of the most efficient in the world.
As roads and rail lines were added in the region, giant grocery store chains like Chatham, Great Scott!, and Wrigley, which once bought directly from the terminal, created their own distribution centers. In some cases, they sourced their own farms. However, even Farmer Jack, which operated a large distribution facility along Interstate 96, west of the Southfield Freeway, continued to tap the terminal’s offerings right up until its 2007 demise.
In 1983, Herb Abarash, a third-generation owner of Andrew Bros. of Detroit, along with Chris Billmeyer, president and CEO of Ben B. Schwartz & Sons Inc., also of Detroit, bought the terminal (the companies had been based at the complex since its opening). Buying the terminal “ensured we’d have control of our destiny,” says Jeff Abarash, the fourth-generation owner and president of Andrew Bros. “Herb and Chris were not comfortable at that point in having all of our futures in the hands of the railroads.”