I’m not particularly a morning person, so when my alarm went off at 2:45 AM that dark Thursday morning, I could barely remember having slept at all, and I cursed myself for thinking this was going to be a great adventure. People actually do this every morning, I thought as I struggled to shower and make some sense of why on God’s green earth I decided to drive down to both Detroit’s Eastern Market and Produce Terminal when I could otherwise be in my warm bed.
A cup of coffee later, it dawned on me that seeing and tasting some of the best fruits on God’s green earth was EXACTLY why I was doing it. And I must admit, the vegetables were pretty spectacular too. By the time I got to the bottom of the cup, I was actually anxious to meet up with Joe Santoro, Nino’s Senior Produce Buyer at shed #4 at precisely 3:45 AM to tag with Joe as he did what he does so well every morning: inspect, taste, and buy the spectacular produce you see each time you visit Nino Salvaggio.
Coffee is an amazing beverage…
Now for Joe and Nino’s, the easy way out would be to just sit in a warm, comfortable office mid-day, and then pick up the phone and just phone in an order to some produce wholesaler, buying produce unseen and untasted. In that case, you’d just get what you got. And that, my friends, is no way to become a leader in the retail produce industry. Produce isn’t manufactured; it’s grown. And weather, as you can well imagine, not only plays a huge role in what’s available each day but also in its quality and price.
Joe, like the generations of experienced produce buyers before him, including Nino’s founder Nino Salvaggio and Joe’s father Mike Santoro, knows the only way you’ll know the real story of the quality and price of what’s available today and in the near future is to do two things. FIRST, pay attention to the weather, the news, and the trends. And SECOND, build strong, lasting relationships with Detroit’s local growers and national wholesalers who grow or ship produce to both the Eastern Market and Terminal daily.
One of my favorite Woody Allen quotes is “80% of success is showing up.” And we show up at Detroit’s produce markets each day because that’s where we know Nino’s success really began. You only build strong relationships by being there–showing up.
Visiting Detroit’s Eastern Market at 4 AM on a Thursday morning is nothing like visiting it on a Saturday at, let’s say, 9 AM. By then, any self-respecting professional produce buyer is long gone. The last thing they have time for is navigating hordes of wagon-toting, jelly-buying, popcorn-nibbling, produce neophytes looking for a pint of blueberries, a spray of fresh flowers, and a dozen ears of corn.
Running on too little sleep and WAY too much coffee, the real pros are on their ritualistic morning mission, and that mission is to see, squeeze, smell, taste, and finally, decide where the best of the best produce is. Then, their goal is to negotiate its price and move on. Most have cleared out of the Eastern Market before our feet hit the floor each morning, and by then they’re already at the MUCH larger Detroit Produce Terminal on Fort Street on the opposite side of town.
In these precious few dark hours of the early morning, time is of the essence for many of these produce buyers because it’s a race to find it and buy it before it’s gone. Not so much for Nino’s–and that’s a good thing. We can stop and spend more time inspecting what we might want to buy because the key suppliers at both the Eastern Market and Produce Terminal know Nino’s.
They know what our standards are–what we buy and what we won’t buy. In many cases, as we visited each supplier’s house (as they’re called) our arrival was anticipated, and we were escorted directly to pallets of produce set aside for our consideration before anyone else had a crack at them. (And I’ll tell you, we passed plenty that looked equally good.) But then, when we tasted them side by side, it was quite obvious they know their craft.
As with books, you can’t judge produce by its cover or rind. By 7 AM, I’d already consumed more produce while sampling with Joe than I had probably eaten in a month. But I really had to work for it, or at least Joe made me work for it. What we wanted to see (okay, I have to admit, it was ALL Joe’s idea) wasn’t what was handed to us to taste, or what was right in front of us to taste, or what might even have been on top. Nooo, Joe was climbing all over the palates and rafters to seek out what was in the middle, what was behind and beyond. I now know why so many of the great produce buyers like Joe are thin.
You have to be able to access some of the places he was able to reach. And I, not wanting to get lost, was doing my best to hold on to the proverbial rope. All this, I might add, was to verify that the good stuff in the front was the same quality as what was in the back if we bought the whole pallet. For example, we tasted at least 8 different watermelons. The final decision (and I happened to agree) was a seeded Arkansas melon at one house and a seedless Texas at another. That whole exercise, and I do mean exercise, started at 5:20 AM, with the final decision being made at 9:10 AM.
Between all of this, I sampled a field’s worth of berries, bell peppers, that Michigan sweet corn I mentioned earlier (raw, right off the cob), lettuces of all kinds, herbs, apples, apricots, and oh yeah, some table grapes called Witches Fingers that I’d never seen before. They look like long, slender, tear-shaped fingers. We ended up buying them, the only 2 cases that came into Detroit that morning. The nod happened just as the sun came up, and later that same morning at 11:00 AM, those exact grapes were merchandised on our beautiful grape table at Nino’s Troy when I walked by.
Before leaving the terminal around 9:30 AM, I saw countless semi-trailers swarming around the dozens of loading docks of the terminal hive like bees looking for their sweet produce nectar. Including, of course, our 3 from Nino’s. The buying for this morning was finished. The loading of the semis had begun, and all that was left for Joe was the paperwork, including the daily produce report he sends to each store to let them know what’s on the way and what its price will be.
As for me, from my first handshake with Michigan farmer Rob Ruhlig of Ruhlig Farms in Carleton (at the Eastern Market at 4 AM) to my last cup of coffee with the great folks at Royal Banana (in the Detroit Produce Terminal nearly 6 hours later), I learned a great deal. The gist of it is that the great produce we have at Nino’s is no accident. It’s a passion and a lot of work, much of which happens long before you sip that first cup of coffee each morning. Produce is an amazing business.