NEW YORK — Citing $1 billion in demand from New York City's grocers and restaurants for locally sourced foods, the New York State Department of Agriculture took steps to establish a 6-acre wholesale farmers' market here — a development that would give a much-needed boost to New York's upstate economy while helping city retailers promote local produce, as well as local meats, cheeses and seafood.
Infused with $500,000 of state research funding, the New York City Wholesale Farmers' Market project this month convened a group of local grocers for a private focus-group meeting to discuss what types of local products retailers would want at such a market, quantities they expect to purchase, how they would use the market, access, site planning and other concerns.
“What we're looking for is a Hunt's Point [terminal market] meets the [Union Square public] Greenmarket, where we can tap into some of these local products that are available to the retailers in the Greenmarket, but with the ease of shopping at a conventional wholesale market as far as availability, shipping, invoicing and so on,” Rob Prusak, director of purchasing, New York-based Gourmet Garage, told SN.
The focus group was spearheaded by Gourmet Garage founder Andy Arons; facilitated by NYCWFM researchers Karen Karp, president of Karp Resources, Southold, N.Y., and Ted Spitzer of Market Ventures, Portland, Maine; and included representatives from Dean & Deluca, Balducci's, Garden of Eden Gourmet Market, Food Emporium, Blue Apron Foods, The Park Slope Food Coop and Commodities Natural Market.
“These retailers would not have shown up if they weren't interested in buying more local food,” said Karp.
The Park Slope Food Coop is an advocate of local farms, according to Allen Zimmerman, general coordinator and produce buyer for the Brooklyn-based store.
“Anything that will bring more local produce into the city will be good for us, and I'm not saying us, as in one little store in Brooklyn, but I think it's an improvement of the world in our tiny little corner,” Zimmerman told SN.
The initiative comes at a time when several of New York's food wholesaling institutions have been in a state of flux. Up until 2005, some 17 farmers would drive every day in their trucks to a parking lot behind the Bronx Terminal Market near Yankee Stadium and sell products directly to wholesale buyers, Karp told SN. The market was recently closed by the city, however, to make way for a mall.
Similarly, after almost 200 years of operation in lower Manhattan, the Fulton Fish Market recently moved to a new facility in the Hunt's Point neighborhood of the Bronx, near other major distribution hubs, including the New York City Terminal Market and the Hunts Point Cooperative Market.
“These farmers still exist — they got kicked out because the Bronx Terminal Market closed, and last year they rented space from the Parks Department in the interim to sell their products,” said Karp.
She noted that this “market” was completely under the radar; many of the retailers who participated in the recent focus-group meeting were never aware that it existed.
Karp said that this year the NYSDA has found a temporary solution for these farmers by securing them an outdoor area in the Fulton Fish Market's parking lot. But with demand building among retailers and restaurants for more local foods, the space won't work forever.
“In fact, it is not exclusively for these farmers that the State Department of Agriculture has been looking with our help to reestablish a wholesale farmers' market, but it is because of the growing momentum and demand for local food as well,” she added.
“We need to reestablish a wholesale farmers' market in NYC. It's clear that the demand is there; you can't buy the stuff at the [consumer-oriented] Greenmarket; it's inefficient; there isn't the right supply; and the farmers are not geared up to sell to wholesale buyers,” Karp stressed. “There needs to be another place.”
Prusak agreed. “Right now, if you walk down to Union Square, you need to have a pocket full of cash and then have to throw a bag of potatoes over your shoulder,” he said.
“It's not very practical in trying to service several hundred SKUs, so consequently, you walk away saying, ‘If only I could get that product at my stores, the customers would love it.’ I guess the big question is how to make that happen, and that's what we were working on at the focus group.”
It has not yet been decided where this wholesale market will be located, but potential locations have been narrowed down to areas in either the Bronx or Brooklyn.
Now that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has identified the NYCWFM as one of his 15 priorities to rejuvenate the upstate New York economy, the city is beginning to express more interest in finding the land needed for the market, Karp said.
“It's very exciting to know that this is a very important project to Gov. Spitzer, and that it interested some very large New York food vendors like Zabar's, Food Emporium and Gourmet Garage. It means that there's a budget behind it, and some fairly large purveyors interested in it, and I think that all adds up to something positive,” said Zimmerman.
Prusak said he believes that this market is an inevitable thing because customers are looking for more local products, and if Gourmet Garage could fulfill customer demand with more regularity and ease, supply would then be steadier.
“I think it's kind of a chicken-and-egg situation. I'm sure the farmers would grow more if they knew they could sell more, and I think that's what this group is all about — trying to find out what the demands are, and then the farmers would create the supply.”