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.

As a ten-year-old, Ramirez says, he felt perfectly safe in a produce market that was like a small town. Crack cocaine changed that; today crime comes with the territory. And just as the streets have gotten meaner, so too the produce trade has become edgier and ruthless. "What I see here, in like a two-year, three-year span, little by little the smaller companies are being compacted A and being ousted. The big companies, the Syscos, the Henry Lees, the Cheney Brothers and all. Before, my dad used to say, 'If I have a problem I go into the mom-and-pops, the small guys.' Those guys used to pay cash; you pick up five or six, seven of those, you make some money, no problem. Now there's almost no mom-and-pops, to begin with. And second, those big companies will go inside the mom-and-pops. So what's left over for the small companies like me? To close up and go work for a big company."

Enrique Gonzalez is Otto Garcia's father-in-law. He first came to the market in the early Seventies, moonlighting from his job waiting tables at the old Valenti's on NW Seventh Avenue. He got his foot in the door as a peddler, supplying restaurants and stores with fresh fruit and vegetables in an ancient Ford van with a balky clutch. In those days, before the rise of the large food-service companies, independent operators dominated the restaurant-supply business; the little guys left more room for a sufficiently hungry upstart to get in on the action. Gonzalez knew the schedule would be a killer: work at Valenti's until eleven, grab a few hours' sleep, buy at the market before sunrise, then rattle around making deliveries all morning. But he didn't want to be a waiter forever, and this looked like a good way to get out on his own. Gonzalez knew food A his father ran a restaurant -- and he had the Ford. How hard could it be?

He found out his first day at the market. Without really thinking about it, he went overboard buying cabbage. He bought so much cabbage, in fact, that he filled his little van with nothing but cabbage. By that afternoon, after a frustrating and largely futile trek from restaurant to restaurant and grocery store to grocery store, he knew he was in trouble. Most of the cabbage was still unsold, and without refrigeration it was about to start depreciating rapidly. Tortured by the thought of all that inventory rotting away in his van, Gonzalez racked his brain for an answer. There had to be somebody out there hungry for large amounts of cabbage. But who? Then it hit him.

Cole slaw. Cole slaw was made out of cabbage. And barbecue restaurants sold cole slaw by the barrel.

The next morning, Gonzalez hit every barbecue joint he could find, and he emptied his van. Along the way, he also picked up a core group of repeat customers. It seemed he had a natural talent for the produce business, and more than a little luck.

"I tell you, everything in life is how lucky you are," the proprietor of Enrique Produce says today, emphasizing his staccato English with abrupt gestures of his right hand. "Sometimes you know a lot, and it means nothing. Sometimes you gotta be lucky."

One of the luckiest things that happened to Gonzalez occurred shortly after the near-catastrophe with the cabbage. He met a wholesaler named Lenny Strom, "the man who showed me this business." Strom had been in the market for decades (he came to it as a hobo and worked his way up) and was famous for two things: his sweet potatoes, and his honesty. Sweet potatoes were Strom's specialty; he sold more than anyone else in Florida, because he supplied the Grand Union supermarket chain. Honesty was his trademark, and it set him apart in a business where corruption and fraud were just part of the game. It also made him a good person to know if you were a newcomer and needed someone you could trust to teach you the ropes.

That was something you needed badly if you wanted to stay in business. For while the modern market may seem to have more than its share of shadiness, by most accounts the old days were far worse. In fact, to hear the old-timers tell it, the place was a snake pit of dirty deals, bribes, and outright thievery. On top of the reptile pile was the man they called the Mayor of the Market, Frank Martin, who ran an empire of influence out of his gas station on the corner of NW 22nd Street and 12th Avenue. So smooth an operator was Martin that he transcended produce and went into politics, gaining notoriety for his role in the 1973 "Market Connection" case, in which he and then-Miami mayor David Kennedy were accused of conspiring to bribe Circuit Court judge Jack Turner. (All three beat the rap -- in large part because the prosecution couldn't prove its claims that their suspicious-sounding conversations, recorded from a tap on the phone at Martin's gas station, hid bribery negotiations behind produce code words like "crates" and "bushel baskets.")

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