Even in a culinarily conscious place like San Francisco, few residents expend much mental energy thinking about where the raw ingredients for the salad they tuck into during lunch come from. But an enormous amount of labor is involved in getting those vegetables from the farm to the plate.
Much of the produce served by restaurants and sold by Bay Area grocers like Gus's Community Market, Bi-Rite and Berkeley Bowl has, as part of its journey, a pit stop at the San Francisco Wholesale Market, also known as the SF Market.
In the wee hours of the morning, the sprawling roughly 500,000-square-foot industrial facility in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood whirrs to life. A largely nocturnal operation, the market operates from midnight to 9 a.m. The nightly population swells to nearly a thousand people, and on a busy day, the facility has 60 big rigs navigating through tight entryways.
Sergio Solis, the facility’s operations manager, took us on a tour of the market and the array of businesses and characters that populate it on a recent early morning.
The moon is high in the sky, but the market is alive with activity. Trucks rolling, forklifts beeping and workers loading colorful arrays of fruits and vegetables. To an outsider, it may seem more than a bit chaotic, but Solis said this is all part of the daily routine.
“Everyone knows each other, and we see each other every day,” Solis said. “We can’t have a conversation with nobody else but ourselves.”
Mike Pizza is among the members of the fourth generation of his family who operate the Washington Vegetable Company. His great-grandfather started the business back in 1931; it specializes in tomatoes, leafy greens, specialty avocados and other organic produce.
Pizza grew up coming to the business and remembers throwing paper airplanes from the stairs above that floated down into the warehouse floor below. After a spell working on the East Coast in the tech industry, he decided to come back to the family business four years ago.
“It’s more tangible work,” Pizza said. “There’s a lot of real people here, and it feels like you’re doing something real.”
In explaining the products that the business stocks, Pizza runs through a mini geography and agriculture lesson. Avocados in the summer come from the Central Valley and, during the winter, Mexico. Tomatoes are from Mexico year-round. Greens like cilantro are transitioning from their winter supply in the high desert to the Central Valley.
From Pizza’s stop, the produce heads out to local grocery stores or restaurants and a few boxes get shipped from Travis Air Force Base to islands in the Western Pacific like Saipan and Guam.
Part of the market’s mission is to give businesses the resources they need to grow and evolve. One example is Arcadios Produce, which started out operating out of one truck in 2010. Last year, it became the main tenant of a new warehouse building constructed by the market, which provided the company with triple the square footage it had previously occupied.
The type of industrial space the SF Market provides is an increasing rarity in the Bay Area. The closest similar facility is about eight miles away in South San Francisco. But that property, known as the Golden Gate Produce Terminal, was recently sold off as a redevelopment site for a planned biotech and lab space.
“This kind of space is going away. It’s one of the reasons we exist,” said Michael Janis, SF Market’s general manager and executive director. “That space is just not being re-created. That’s what makes us unique. In some respects, we’re similar to a nonprofit affordable housing developer but for our food space.”
Janis is planning for an expansion of the market, funded through a combination of profits from the market operations, state money and low-interest financing.
“While there’s not enough of those programs for affordable housing, at least they exist,” Janis said. “They don’t exist for us, so we’re creating them.”
Even though the 26 independent merchants housed in the facility are technically competitors, their relationships are more like those in a mutually reliant community. The businesses’ clients rely on them to get the products they need, and more often than not, that means trading with neighboring merchants to fill gaps in their supply.
“I like to say that we're happy competitors,” said Stanley Corriea. “I've got a lot of relationships with people that I've been doing business with for 45 years. A lot of it goes back to people who are considered family.”
Corriea himself is the third-generation owner of Stanley Produce Company, the market’s second oldest tenant. Founded in 1941, the company was located at the old wholesale market where the Embarcadero Center is now before transitioning to the current facility when it was originally built in 1962.
The business started out with a specialty in mushrooms before branching out into a variety of produce, namely the radicchio and endive that have become commonplace on restaurant menus.
Corriea proudly states that his family was the first to import Belgian endive to the West Coast. A family friend who was introduced to the product through Stanley ended up using the company's expertise to start what has become the largest American producer of the vegetable today.
That’s part of what keeps Corriea coming back to work every night—braving the difficult hours in the process—linkages that go back decades and generations.
“I have people that I used to deliver [to] on in a pickup truck when I was 18 years old,” Corriea said. “It’s relationship- and customer-driven, where you’re doing best to take care of people in short markets and literally all the time.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org