Sell It or Smell It

Potatoes are plentiful, but green beans are scarce. Okra abounds, and tomatoes are holding their own. If it weren't for Allapattah's terminal market, Miamians would have no food for thought.

Danna can afford a certain amused detachment about NAFTA; he can and will get tomatoes wherever he needs to, be it Florida, California, or Mexico. Still, it's clear that like almost everyone else in the Miami market, he's uncomfortable with the way things are going. In the face of competition and soft demand, the market seems to be stretching its dependence on credit to the breaking point. Payments from buyers A difficult for wholesalers to collect even in the best of times A come in later and later, or not at all. Wholesalers cut their customers more slack, hoping they'll stay in business and repay their debts. But as the margin for those buyers gets narrower and narrower, the chance that they might survive to pay again gets worse.

Steve Danna has a longer memory of the market than most. He can recall when it operated without real refrigeration, when the land under the shed belonged to the Dade Farmers' Cooperative and farmers brought fresh fruits and vegetables every day straight from the fields of Homestead, Immokalee, and Okeechobee and sold it right off their trucks. Together with a much higher volume of rail traffic, that was enough to carry most of South Florida in the Fifties. In those days the market prospered on trade from chain stores, as well as from a multitude of smaller independent grocers and restaurant purveyors.

Then everything changed. The growth of the new interstate highway system and improvements in refrigeration technology made long-distance trucking far easier. The big trucks could go places boxcars couldn't; they could unload at any number of different locations on one run; and they put the railroads' service record to shame. They also enabled the supermarket chains to build their own fresh-produce warehouses and ship in product directly A cutting the central market out of the loop. "The big change happened around the Sixties," Danna says. "It took a lot of business out of the market." Not only were the chains no longer buying in the market, they began killing off its smaller customers, the mom-and-pop groceries, roadside stands, and neighborhood peddlers of old South Florida.

The pattern repeated itself all over the U.S., strangling wholesale markets wherever supermarkets held sway. In Miami, though, the market managed to hang on, thanks in no small measure to Fidel Castro. For when the Cuban immigrant influx of the Sixties transformed Miami, it also transformed the market. Rather than shop at supermarkets where no one spoke Spanish and Latin specialties were unavailable, Cubans revived the neighborhood grocery and the whole system of middlemen that served it. They became restaurant purveyors, street peddlers, and wholesalers themselves, and adapted the produce market to their own needs. By so doing they kept it alive, but in a precarious condition, suspended from a thousand tiny threads.

At the same time, many of the market's vendors reached out into areas traditionally handled by other people. Wholesalers began getting into purveying in addition to selling to the peddlers who showed up at their docks in the mornings. Peddlers began looking for permanent locations with cold storage, competing in their own small way with the wholesalers. And some people started doing retail out of what had always been thought of as wholesale space. Today Miami's produce market is a mind-boggling blur of commercial categories, with wholesalers such as Enrique Produce, the Produce Connection, and the giant American Fruit and Produce doing restaurant deliveries and even exports; P. Tavilla concentrating on the high end but still selling to its lesser neighbors, guys in tiny stalls under the shed hawking lettuce by the head; and Sergio Felipe operating what amounts to a Latin American open-air market. The various enterprises have become extraordinarily interdependent, and also -- under pressure from outside competitors with deep pockets -- extraordinarily dependent on credit.

This question of credit comes up all the time in discussions of the health of the produce market. In a way it's like the federal budget deficit; everybody knows it's trouble, but almost nobody knows how to operate without it. "It's a circle: This guy owes that guy and that guy owes this guy," says Ralph Ramirez, who recently gave up his independent operation and went to work for P. Tavilla. "This guy's gotta wait to get paid by this guy before he pays, and you just keep going around and around the circle," explains Ramirez of his decision. "It's like a whirlpool; it just keeps going down, and everybody's in the same boat, from the biggest to the smallest."

Ramirez is only in his early thirties, but he possesses an experience of the market far out of proportion to his age. He practically grew up in the place; his father started taking him there when he was ten. "My dad used to sell dairy, ten, twenty years ago," Ramirez says. "I'm the one that introduced the produce part of it because everybody started getting more versatile and everything. Before, you know, the milkman sold milk, and the egg man sold eggs A now everything's shifted, everybody sells everything. That's the only way to survive in this market."

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