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.

Less prominent but far more prevalent than Martin's type were guys like the unfortunately named Eddie Munchie. He and Strom were "two opposites," according to Bruce Fishbein, owner of the Produce Connection. "You could put a million dollars on the counter in front of Lenny and walk away, and come back an hour later to find it still there. You could trust Lenny," Fishbein says. "You put a million dollars in front of Eddie, turn around and both he and the money would be gone. And he wouldn't have stolen your money A he'd owe it to you." Munchie was famous for his penchant for "making 24 out of 12" A the all-too-common practice of breaking down a dozen bunches of an item such as basil and repackaging them to fill a two-dozen-bunch order. It's said that after the end of the wholesaler's long and inglorious career, the people who cleaned out his cooler found boxes of twenty-year-old lettuce.

Vendors like Munchie did all right in the market of the mid-Seventies, partly because standards of service were lower. In the short run, you could make a lot of money operating that way. But Gonzalez wasn't in for the short run. Lenny Strom had taught him differently: "The old man, he always said to me, 'Listen, make sure the customer is happy with the package. And you be more happy than the customer. That customer will never leave you, will always come back and bring another customer.' And that's true."

It was also a good strategy for survival in the hard times ahead. When the behemoths like Sysco weighed in with lower prices and generous credit, a lot of little restaurant peddlers got squashed. Like the supermarket chains, the big food-service companies had their own warehouses outside the central market, and they could buy large volumes of produce directly from the source. With that kind of competition, playing games with the customer got you nowhere; keeping customers satisfied and loyal was hard enough without trying to take unfair advantage of them. Gonzalez's biggest customer at the time was the cruise ship Emerald Seas, an account he says he kept only because of his obsession with service. "When things got bad on the streets, when I got down, I said hell, I got the boat, and the boat buys a lot," he recalls. "I was concentrating on these people all the time, and they were very, very nice to me for many years. And nobody, nobody since I took that boat could take me out of that business. Many other companies offered these people very reasonable prices. But they said they preferred to pay me 50 cents more or 75 cents more for a package because I was dedicated to them, and they knew if something's wrong or something happened, I was there."

Gonzalez supplied the Emerald Seas for five years, until its owners sold the ship to Royal Caribbean. He was no longer waiting tables, but if anything he was pushing himself harder than ever. "I work very hard then, oh yeah, I swing," he remembers. "Nobody could swing in this market the way I swing by myself, alone. In the morning I came to the market at one o'clock and started to pick up everything for the boat. It was two trucks, two trucks and a half for the boat, and then I drive to the port, do a delivery early, come back and take a truck or van and do delivery with another fellow in the street." At the same time, he slowly but surely established himself, buying more and bigger trucks, leasing a rundown cooler to store his produce, saving his money and hunting for a place to call his own.

He found it eight years ago, a warehouse on NW 22nd Street with a leaky roof, lousy coolers, and substandard wiring. "I pass by one day here, I see this building here for sale, and I said, gee, that's a nice building," he recalls. What he saw were the possibilities of the place -- possibilities whose realization would cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of work, but would give him something he'd wanted as long as he could remember.

"I'm 59, and all the way I was dreaming to get my own business." He shifts in his chair and gazes out the window at the busy loading dock he pressure-cleans every weekend. Just outside his spotless white office, a middle-age woman is slicing onions for Planet Hollywood, and the smell drifting under the door is almost overpowering. "This is paradise, what I have now. This is the whole idea I had, what I have now. I have a good little place, I can count my money. A big company, I get burnout, I don't want it. You see American Fruit A" he waves toward the north, where giant American Fruit and Produce has an entire block of coolers and a fleet of trucks. "I don't wish them bad luck, I hope they make many million dollars. But if you're growing so fast -- they got twenty trucks on the street, they got exports, but they got so much business out and too much credit. And you have to pay. Employees you got to pay every week, gasoline you got to pay, you got to pay insurance, you got to pay the trucks, the bank, you have to pay the mechanic, you have to pay everybody. If you have no money, who does it? Hell no, I don't need it. I need the small people who pay and go. That's the way you keep going. You make a little bit, and you sell."

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