Tour Recap: Baldor Specialty Foods

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The sprawling Hunts Point Food Distribution Center is organized around a broad concrete ring road known as Food Center Drive. Tucked into the center of the loop, just north of the meat market complex, is a large, cream colored building—originally built as a warehouse for the A&P grocery chain—that is home to Baldor Specialty Foods, one of the area’s largest private food distribution firms. Baldor’s trucks are so ubiquitous on New York City streets that we tend to overlook them. Pay attention, though, and you’ll start to see them everywhere. In fact, when a bus pulled up on June 10th to pick up a Bronx-bound group for a tour organized as part of Open House New York’s The Final Mile, it parked directly behind a Baldor truck that was making a delivery to a local restaurant.

On arriving at the warehouse, Benjamin Walker, Baldor’s Director of Marketing and Business Development, and Johanna Kolodny, a food systems consultant working with the company to build relationships with regional farmers, provided the group with a history of the company. Baldor traces its origins to the famous Balducci’s, which started as a fruit stand in Brooklyn in 1916 and later became a pioneer in the city’s specialty grocery sector. When the owners tired of selling directly to chefs, whose orders were large and often unpredictable, they spun off wholesaling operations to create Baldor in 1991.

Today, Baldor’s numbers tell an impressive story. The company operates a fleet of 300 trucks that deliver 60,000 packages of produce to 2,000 venues each night, from Yankee Stadium to restaurants across the five boroughs. Of that cargo, a scant 5% is non-perishable goods, as Baldor specializes in produce, both raw and prepared. The warehouse has a catalog of more than 5,000 items on hand at any given time, and its entire inventory turns over every two days.

“If you call me at 11 o’clock tonight, I’m going to be able to deliver to you tomorrow morning,” Walker told the group. “We like to think of Baldor as the UPS of produce. We’re the ‘to’ in farm-to-fork.”

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Photography was not allowed during the tour, but this photo from ProduceProcessing.net gives a sense of the scale of operations at Baldor’s Fresh Cuts facility.

Baldor works with local farmers whenever possible, and it offers a wide variety of locally grown produce to urban customers. Still, that level of responsiveness requires the company to work an extensive network of suppliers. Walker related the story of Harry’s Berries, a farm in southern California that harvests strawberries to order, trucks them to LAX, and flies them out to JFK the same evening, allowing Baldor to get them onto store shelves the very next day. “We make that look easy,” he said, with obvious pride. “It’s even harder than it sounds.”

After the quick history lesson, the tour started with a visit to Baldor’s state of the art Fresh Cuts facility. New Yorkers consume a huge amount of prepared foods every day, and much of the processing work is done in Hunts Point. As NYCEDC’s Julie Stein put it on an earlier Final Mile tour, the Hunts Point serves as a sort of “back kitchen” for the city at large—after all, those ubiquitous melon salads have to come from somewhere, and delis, restaurants, and green grocers scarcely have room (or time) to do all of that chopping and peeling in-house in an extraordinarily dense city, where demand is high and space is at a premium.

To see where a great deal of that work takes place, tour participants donned white lab coats and special hairnets that wrap around to cover the entire head, except for the face—the standard uniform for every employee who works in the Fresh Cuts facility. Shuffling across floors covered in a shallow layer of soapy water, the group entered through the de-boxing room, where raw produce is removed from crates in preparation for processing. After passing by towers of boxes of everything from iceberg lettuce to broccoli, the tour moved through a series of processing areas that housed huge industrial machinery designed to do everything from peeling carrots to balling melons en masse.

The experience of a visit to Fresh Cuts is, quite literally, unparalleled; there’s nothing else quite like it. The smells of freshly peeled, chopped, and diced fruits and vegetables mingle to create a powerful, distinctly fresh scent that leaves one with the overwhelming desire to find and consume the largest salad imaginable. The facility is visually compelling, as well. The sight of haystack-sized mounds of orange carrot chunks and purple-and-white swirls of thinly sliced onions against a backdrop of towering, brushed aluminum processing contraptions of every shape and size could perhaps best be described as Seussian.

Photo credit: ProduceProcessing.net

Photo credit: ProduceProcessing.net

After Fresh Cuts, the group took a walk through the massive warehouse, where every imaginable variety of produce was on display. The warehouse contains a variety of different areas where humidity and temperature vary depending on what is on the shelves. There is one room that, in late summer, can be stocked with as many as 60 different varieties of tomatoes. Another area, which Walker called “the best-smelling room in the warehouse,” is the chocolate room, a climate-controlled space of a few hundred square feet that features shelves stocked with exotic types of sugar and chunks of chocolate as large as a coffee table book. Again, the scent is distinctive, but not in the way you might expect; a room full of chocolate from around the world smells not overtly sweet, but surprisingly earthy.

The last stop in the warehouse before heading back to the bus was the section where Baldor keeps its stock of baby vegetables, where Walker showed the group miniature carrots and turnips barely larger than the head of a sharpened pencil. Baldor stocks an incredible 1,000 different varieties of miniature produce and micro-greens. “Chefs are always looking for something unique and different, so we really specialize in those hard to find products,” Walker told the group, in explaining this bizarre bounty.

While huge wholesale markets like the Produce Market across Food Center Drive can supply the bulk of the city’s basic needs in terms of fruits and veggies, the dynamic nature of the city’s culinary scene creates enough demand for novelty and variety to make it possible for a business like Baldor to do what it does, supplying everything from melon salads by the cart-load, to miniature carrots meant to garnish theatrical chefs’ imaginative creations. That a place as strange and wonderful as Baldor’s warehouse can exist is a reflection of New York City’s incredible cultural diversity.

Tour Recap: Hunts Point Produce Market

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When you come upon the Hunts Point Produce Market, the sudden shift in scale is almost startling. Hunts Point feels, at first, like a fairly typical Bronx neighborhood. Driving down Hunts Point Avenue, a diagonal thoroughfare that cuts across the gridded peninsula from the northeast to the southwest, you pass a mix of large and small, brick-clad apartment blocks, with bodegas and restaurants fronting wide sidewalks; this gives way to several blocks of low-slung industrial buildings: auto body shops, warehouses, workshops.

And then, there it is: a colossal building, five hundred feet longer than the Empire State Building is tall, the blue windows and beige brick of the second story just peeking over the top of an eight-foot concrete perimeter wall securing the site through which 65% of the fruits and vegetables that New Yorkers eat moves every day. Architecturally, the market is so unassuming that you could almost miss it. And yet, this may be one of the single most important buildings in all of New York City.

15,000 trucks go in and out of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center every day—many of them bound for the Produce Market, which is one of three public wholesale markets in the hub (along with the city’s markets for fish and meat). When they arrive, those trucks enter the Produce Market through a secure gate and proceed to one of hundreds of bays along four Row buildings (A, B, C, or D), each of which stretches a third of a mile in length.

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15,000 trucks go in and out of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center every day. (Photo: NYCEDC)

Occupying the 262 ½ units in these seemingly endless rows are 39 produce wholesaling businesses that rent their spaces from the co-operative that has run the market since it was built in the 1950s. Many of these businesses are family-owned, having been passed down through generations; some have been in operation since the days of the old Washington Market in Lower Manhattan, which served as the city’s produce hub from the mid-19th century up until it was demolished through urban renewal in the 1960s.

Today, the Produce Market’s businesses are the source of more than 3,000 direct jobs; if you include indirect jobs, the market provides employment for more than 10,000 people. 70% of the warehousemen live in the Bronx, making the market not only a critical source of food for the city, but of stable employment for the residents of one of its poorest boroughs.

“Each company is its own business,” explained market director Myra Gordon. “We [the market co-operative] have nothing to do with the running of the businesses…The people who get jobs here—they stay. These are good jobs. They don’t open up very often.”

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“The people who get jobs here—they stay. These are good jobs. They don’t open up very often.” (Photo: NYCEDC)

Gordon was our guide on a recent tour of the Hunts Point Produce Market organized by Open House New York as part of The Final Mile’s exploration of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, the nerve center of the city’s food system. For her own part, Gordon—as colorful and knowledgeable a New York character as one could ever hope to join for a tour—wouldn’t say exactly how long she’d been with the market, but indicated that it had been many decades since she took the helm. “I interviewed for it because they’d never hired a woman before,” she told the group, with a wry smile. “I didn’t think I’d get it.”

Gordon began by leading the group through the market, toward the tail end of the busiest part of the day. Deliveries to the market mostly take place between 4:00 and 7:00 in the morning, with buyers arriving throughout the morning.  Things wrap up each day by 3:00pm, and the market is closed on the weekends. The tour took place at 9:00am on a Thursday, and the market was still bustling. Things had calmed down enough that the group was able to walk with relative ease up Row A, then back down Row B—a trip that took nearly 20 minutes despite a brisk pace.

During the walk, warehousemen swarmed around the group rolling handcarts stacked with boxes of tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, onions, and lettuce. The sheer amount of produce was mind-boggling. Some businesses were fronted by colorful displays of their stock for the day; others were practically hidden behind walls of cardboard boxes, ready to be loaded onto a waiting truck. Everything within view, Gordon told the group, came in the night before.

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Walking through the produce market, it’s hard not to be amazed by the sheer volume of fruits and vegetables moving in and out of the buildings. (Photo: NYCEDC)

There’s a reason for this—and its not just that New Yorkers are hungry people. The market is out of space, and every minute here counts, as businesses are looking to move as much product through their space as possible. The four Row buildings are all at capacity, and hundreds of truck trailers sit in long lines, serving as back-up refrigerated storage, dramatically increasing energy costs at a site that—alarmingly—has no backup power source.

“Business is flat,” Gordon told the group. “Even though the city’s population is growing, business is flat…Nobody had a futuristic mindset when this market was being planned and developed, to think that [truck] trailers would go from forty feet to fifty feet, or more. So now, our spaces are not wide enough; the platforms are too narrow. We don’t want to use the trailers for storage, [but we don’t have a choice].”

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The site’s four massive Row buildings are home to 39 produce wholesalers, each of which operates as an independent business. The Produce Market itself has been run as a co-operative since moving to Hunts Point in the 1950s from Lower Manhattan. (Photo: NYCEDC)

For its part, the city is aware of the space constraints at its largest wholesale market, and is working to improve things at the site. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to invest $150 million into the modernization of the Hunts Point markets. The mayor stated, during his announcement, that the growing interest in local food was a key factor in the decision. While this is a strong start, Gordon told the group that the co-op had been talking about re-building at the current site for more than a decade, and that the estimated cost for the overhaul they would ideally like to see would be in the neighborhood of $400 million.

The complexity of rebuilding at such a busy, critical site would be enormous, but the produce market is a critical site within the city’s food system—and within the global system of food distribution in which New York is a major hub. For any New Yorker concerned about the future of the urban food system, a better understanding of the issues facing the market is critical. It may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of New York; but we would live in a profoundly different city if the produce market weren’t standing right where it is today.

Open House New York thanks the Hunts Point Produce Market for welcoming participants into their facility for this tour. OHNY also thanks NYCEDC for helping to arrange the tour, for joining the group to provide context on the bus ride up to the market, and for providing stock imagery of the produce market for this blog post as photography was not permitted during the tour.

Tour Recap: The New Fulton Fish Market

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On Friday, April 24th, The Final Mile began, fittingly, at the crack of dawn. Starting at 3:45 AM, thirty bleary-eyed New Yorkers gathered at Open House New York’s offices in the Flatiron District and climbed aboard a bus bound for the New Fulton Fish Market, located in the Bronx. The market, which famously moved from its huddled, historic quarters along the East River in Lower Manhattan in 2005, is at its peak in the wee hours of the morning, long before most of us wake up. Starting just after midnight, vendors, buyers, jobbers, truckers, and market managers venture up to the Hunts Point peninsula to buy and sell seafood sourced from every coastal state from New England to the Gulf of Mexico in a massive, quarter-mile-long market shed. It’s exactly as impressive as it sounds.

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The tour group was hard to miss! Here, a cluster of 30 visitors makes their way down the western aisle of the quarter-mile-long market shed. (Photo: OHNY)

On the ride up, the group learned about the history of the fish market—and the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, of which it is a part—from Julie Stein, a Vice President of Development with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which serves as the landlord for the entire Food Distribution Center. Stein, who works with markets and food businesses across the city, helped to provide context for what the group was about to see.

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Market Manager George Maroulis (center-right, in the blue jacket) welcomed the group to the market. (Photo: OHNY)

The fish market was actually the last of the city’s major public markets to move to Hunts Point, following the creation of the Hunts Point Produce Market by vendors previously located at the Washington Market (on the present-day site of the World Trade Center) in the 1950s, and the Hunts Point Meat Market by vendors from the Gansevoort Meat Market (from which the Meatpacking District garnered its name—and its once gritty reputation). The city’s three public food markets serve as the main nodes within a 329-acre campus at Hunts Point, which supplies an astounding 50% of the city’s produce, meat, and fish. The Food Distribution Center is the source of 8,000 direct jobs, and many more thousands of indirect jobs in food-related businesses clustered in the surrounding area. “New York City has a really unique food system,” Stein explained, “because we place more emphasis on public markets, whereas vertically-integrated supermarket chains are more dominant in other areas.”

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Bushels of every imaginable type of seafood were on display throughout the market shed. (Photo: OHNY)

Upon arriving at the New Fulton Fish Market, the group was greeted by Market Manager George Maroulis, the man in charge of the day-to-day operations of this critical link within the city’s food system. Maroulis was quick to reiterate Stein’s point about the important role that public markets play in the local food economy: “In New York City, a lot of things are very expensive—housing, transportation, etcetera. But you get the best bang for your buck for food here, and the best quality for the price.”

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The New Fulton Fish Market supports around 750 direct jobs, and many more indirect jobs. (Photo: OHNY)

Maroulis led the group from the loading dock at the building’s northeastern end into the main market shed, a cavernous, single room that houses thirty vendors that directly employ about 750 people. The room was remarkably pungent, given the size and temperature; the entire facility is kept chilled, like a giant refrigerator. If it ever lost power, the market could lock its doors and seal the facility, keeping the seafood inside safe for 36 hours.

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If the market ever lost power, it could lock its doors and seal the facility, keeping the seafood inside safe for 36 hours. (Photo: OHNY)

The group arrived around 5:00 AM, with the market in full swing. Buyers haggled with vendors up and down the two seemingly endless rows lining either side of the shed. Forklifts zoomed along the central aisle, transporting pallets stacked high with every imaginable type of seafood: gray sole, blue crab, John Dory, snapper, bass, whiting, lobster, oysters, escargot, squid. Given the newness of the facility, there was a surprising sense of history in and around the market. The customs and relationships that evolved over centuries on Fulton Street were still evident, despite the change of scenery. There was a great deal of familiarity amongst the vendors and buyers on-site that morning; workers leaned casually against crates full of ice and fish with huge fish hooks slung over shoulders, their wooden handles showing years of intensive use. Under the industrial-scale steel roof, the sense of community was still strong.

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The tour took place at the height of the market’s daily activity, around 5:00 AM. “Keep an eye out,” George warned the group. “You don’t want to get hit by a pallet jack.” (Photo: OHNY)

While the vendors all share one building now, they still operate as independent businesses. All three of the public markets within the Food Distribution Center are operated as co-ops, with the city serving as the landlord. Of the fish market vendors that made the move up to the Bronx in 2005, a full 70% are still in business a decade later. These vendors are subtenants, and they set their own prices, they maintain their own relationships, and they handle all transactions directly. Buyers don’t have accounts with the market, but work directly with the vendors themselves, who compete with each other on price and quality, just like in the historic markets around which the city grew in the 18th and 19th centuries. Maroulis, when asked how this system functions, had a simple answer: “They’ve established trust.”

In the age of automation and vertical integration, it’s interesting to see how much our city’s food system still relies on personal relationships. Maroulis noted the role of face-to-face interaction at the fish market in lowering the cost of fresh food in the metropolitan area. Having lived through the market’s move, he also recalled the impact of the shift from the dense, mixed-use fabric of Lower Manhattan to the more modern, isolated facilities at Hunts Point with a mix of emotions.

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Participants got some hands-on experience with handling the fish. (Photo: OHNY)

“There were positive and negative aspects…psychologically, it was a huge adjustment. In Manhattan, these guys were working in the streets. It was very hard on the individual. You needed a lot of stamina to do that, and it also wasn’t very good for the product itself; it deteriorated very quickly. Now, there’s much better visibility for the buyers; vendors are selling fresher fish, and the buyers are getting a better price. It’s a wonderful climate for the consumer,” Maroulis noted—though he quickly acknowledged that the physical enviroment of the old market, while it presented challenges, also had its charms. “In terms of what’s challenging—they don’t have the pleasure of [working in the city], either.”

As the group neared the back of the market shed, Maroulis shrugged, smiled, and announced, “So, this is it. Fish!”

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Bushels of crabs, awaiting a buyer. (Photo: OHNY)

For all of the complexity of the vast food system that has evolved over centuries to feed New York City, it all still comes down to buyers and sellers haggling over the price of a pound of fish. That amount that can fluctuate based on myriad factors in regions across the globe, from the climactic to the socioeconomic. A strike in China or a storm in Brazil can have big impacts on New York’s food system, but public wholesale markets like the New Fulton Fish Market, by putting vendors and buyers face to face, help to support New York’s uniquely diverse food economy by helping to control the cost and quality of the food that we consume.

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Public wholesale markets like the New Fulton Fish Market, by putting vendors and buyers face to face, help to support New York’s uniquely diverse food economy by helping to control the cost and quality of the food that we consume. (Photo: OHNY)

Open House New York thanks the New Fulton Fish Market for welcoming participants into their facility for this tour. OHNY also thanks NYCEDC for helping to arrange the tour, and joining the group to provide context on the bus ride up to the market.

Announcing The Final Mile: Food Systems of New York

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How does food shape the city?

Food—and the spaces in which it is produced, distributed, and consumed—has always played a profound, if sometimes unacknowledged, role in shaping the physical city. Food factories and processing facilities, distribution centers and warehouses, commercial kitchens, restaurants, markets, and even food carts—look around and you begin to realize that the very ubiquity of food often prevents us from seeing how much space it takes up and what a pervasive influence it has had on the city over time. As architect and author Carolyn Steel observes in Hungry City, “every day we inhabit spaces food has made.”

Every plate of food that we eat represents a vast network of interconnected spaces, large and small, that facilitated the flow and preparation of the ingredients of that meal. To explore that network in all of its complexity, Open House New York announces the launch of The Final Mile: Food Systems of New York, a yearlong series of tours, talks, and participatory programming that will help New Yorkers to better understand the architecture of the city’s uniquely multi-layered food system.

As pervasive as New York’s food system is, few of us comprehend the full scope of its complexity. A 2010 report from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability acknowledged as much, observing that “the complex, interconnected system that supplies food to New York City is…a mystery even to those who consider themselves to be food-literate,” and that “there are few reliable sources of data about the system as a whole.”

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New York City is home to more than a thousand food and beverage manufacturers. (Photo: Daniella Shin for OHNY)

What we do know only begins to suggest the system’s colossal scale: 24,000 restaurants; 5,500 supermarkets, grocery stores, and convenience stores; 1,730 food wholesalers; 1,000 food and beverage manufacturers; 120 farmers markets. The city’s largest produce market handles 210 million packages of fruits and vegetables each year, while its fish market sells millions of pounds of seafood each day. Ten city agencies combine to provide more than 260 million meals a year, making the city second only to the United States military in the number of people it feeds annually.

The final mile is a phrase borrowed from the telecommunications industry to describe the challenges of distributing goods and services—in this case, food—from a central hub to multiple end-users. It is commonly understood as the most problematic and expensive leg of any supply chain; whether literal or metaphorical, the last “mile” is the most difficult because it is where the system makes its final transition from the large scale to the finely grained. The average journey for food sold in New York City is 1,500 miles, because it is actually easier to ship ten tons of produce around the world than it is to get a banana from the warehouse to the bodega shelf.

The paradox of the final mile, though, is that the density that makes these last steps in the supply chain so frustrating in an urban environment—not surprisingly, parking tickets are a food suppliers’ most predictable expense—is the same density that sustains the diverse and vibrant food scene that makes New York such an extraordinary city. It is in the final mile that food is transformed from commodity into culture, and it is in the final mile that New York’s food system asserts its greatest influence on the design and character of our neighborhoods and city.

Millions of pounds of food pass through the market shed at the New Fulton Fish Market every year. (Photo: NYCEDC)

Millions of pounds of food pass through the market shed at the New Fulton Fish Market every year. (Photo: NYCEDC)

Throughout 2015, The Final Mile will take visitors behind the counter and past the kitchen door to explore the myriad spaces through which our food travels before it reaches its final point of consumption. The series launches at the macro-scale this spring with a multi-part series of tours of facilities located at the Hunts Point Distribution Center. First opened in 1967, Hunts Point is today one of the largest food distribution hubs on the planet, with more than a hundred thousand trucks each year delivering hundreds of millions of pounds of fish, produce, and meat to be redistributed to a regional population of more than twenty million people. Later this year, The Final Mile will explore vestiges of past iterations of the city’s food system still operating around the five boroughs, as well as ways that the system is evolving to move us toward a more sustainable, equitable future.

The Final Mile launches in the midst of a resurgent interest in food that expresses itself in the proliferation of farmers markets and CSAs, food festivals, and celebrity chefs. At the same time, it is a moment of uncertainty about the stability and security of our food supply, a moment in which choices we make now will have far-reaching consequences. With the city expected to add another 1.5 million people by 2030, how will existing buildings and infrastructures for food production and distribution need to be adapted and expanded to accommodate this massive increase in demand? What steps can we take to mitigate food inequities, in which some neighborhoods are inundated with new restaurants and markets while others have little or no access to fresh produce? How will climate change and catastrophic weather events like Hurricane Sandy affect our food supply? What impact will escalating real estate prices have on the city’s ability to make space for smaller, local food businesses that have always given the city its special character?

Now is the time to take stock and to better understand the forces at work in feeding our city.

Over the course of the next year, The Final Mile will look at New York City’s food system through the lens of architecture and urban design to create a public conversation about the critical importance of food to shaping the city. We invite you to join us as we explore how New York’s food system works; the kinds of spaces it occupies; how food acts as an agent of urban development in neighborhoods around the five boroughs; and what choices we need to make together to design and build a better food system for the future.

 

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The Final Mile is presented as part of Open House New York’s Urban Systems Series, an ongoing multi-year project that explores how cultural, economic, and environmental shifts in the first decades of the 21st century are transforming the complex network of infrastructures and urban systems of New York City and how those transformations are in turn reshaping the physical city. The Urban Systems Series began last year with Making it Here, a yearlong series about contemporary manufacturing and its importance to the future of New York.

Like Making it Here, The Final Mile will expand its reach and scope through a dedicated website, finalmile.nyc. Be sure to check back regularly for documentation of tours in the series, as well as additional content, including interviews with food distributors, chefs, architects and designers, and food systems experts.

 

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The Final Mile launches this spring with a multi-part series of tours exploring the Hunts Point Distribution Center, one of the largest food distribution hubs in the world, as well as a lecture by Karp Resources president Karen Karp on how the evolution of New York City’s food system has shaped its urban environment over time.

To receive updates on these and other tours, including information about when registration for each program will open to the public, please click here to sign up for OHNY’s mailing list.

The Final Mile will continue with tours and events throughout 2015. Information about the next set of tours will be released later this spring.

For a full list of programs, click here to visit the Schedule page.