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.