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Hunts Point Market keeping people fed through pandemic

Keith Loria

In a typical year, the Hunts Point Produce Market and its 30-plus family-owned merchants handle thousands of varieties of fruits and vegetables, with more than 210 million packages of produce passing through.

Of course, 2020 was not typical by any means, and the COVID-19 pandemic impacted many in the produce industry — including those operating at the Hunts Point Market.

“At the start of the pandemic, the loss of business was immediate,” said Phillip Grant, general manager of the Hunts Point Produce Market. “We lost the restaurant/foodservice business, which accounts for 20 to 30 percent of our business,” he said. “Additionally, there was another 20 to 30 percent decrease in business due to retail and shopping trends.”

In late March going into early April, the market had an overstock situation, which was a problem, as it forced companies to sell for a loss, and they donated what they could.

From onset of the pandemic, the market has greatly increased its donations to help feed New Yorkers. During a typical year, it donates 6.5 million pounds with a dollar value of $6.5 million. Along with the donation of produce made by the merchants, other financial donations are made throughout the year by both the merchants and the cooperative. This amount is projected to increase by 10 to 30 percent this year due to the pandemic. 

Grant said despite the challenges, Hunts Point continued to flourish because of the vast array of ethnicities in the city and the strong work ethic of its companies.

“We are learning, or at least trying to learn, to buy produce differently,” he said. “We continue to adjust because we are in uncharted waters. Between the closure of businesses and the sidewalk peddlers not working, we are missing out on giving healthy, good-quality produce to the people of New York and surrounding areas.”

Plus, the market had to adjust to the inconsistent/new customer buying trends as normal business patterns were disrupted and there were changes in customer buying brought on by social distancing requirements in stores.

“The market adapted to new customer volumes and adjusted sourcing across our wide range of suppliers/growers,” Grant said. “This allowed for flexibility and room to adapt to new public demand trends.”

Still, he noted that those at Hunts Point will have their work cut out for them when life gets back to whatever the “new normal” is and they try to get people to eat right again.

“We will need to get the big retailers to keep produce margins down so consumers will switch back. That will not be easy,” Grant said.

Throughout the Hunts Point Market, numerous safety protocols were put in place, starting with educating the workforce on the latest CDC guidelines.

Don Hoffman, public relations representative for the Hunts Point Terminal, noted this included posting signage and having supervisors encourage hand washing and limit congregation of workers; providing all employees with face coverings that are required in the workplace when in contact with customers or members; sanitizing workstations and in the event of a positive test result from an employee, conducting an interview to determine interaction with other people so that the appropriate notices were delivered. 

Companies also installed Plexiglass barriers to limit distance and contact between people, sales desks, ship desks, receiving booths etc., removed vinyl curtains in doorways or tied them back to limit contact, and offered upstairs telephones and computers for sales to limit interaction in the booths.

Looking ahead to 2021, those at Hunts Point still need to recover from the financial losses brought on by COVID-19, but the experience and dedication of everyone involved has already put them on a winning path.

“Our market is continuing to evolve, we stayed open we are strong, we were able to ban together and do what is needed to be done to keep the market running and New Yorkers fed,” Grant said. “The market and its cooperators remain resilient. The market will continue to grow and adapt to the changing business environment.”

That’s an attitude shared by many of the companies currently doing business at Hunts Point.

“Our purpose as farmers and distributors is to feed people,” said Gabriela D’Arrigo, VP of marketing for D’Arrigo New York. “Keeping this simple yet powerful value at the front of our minds day in and day out is what pushes us forward, regardless of the circumstances. Reciting this mantra to ourselves and each other helps us meet the challenges daily.”

Michael Armata of E. Armata Inc., said the key to succeeding in this pandemic is service.

“We strive to give the best service possible and deliver all throughout the Northeast,” he said. “If a customer is more comfortable calling in an order instead of coming into the market, then we change gears and accommodate them. As for the future ahead, I believe there will be more deliveries to customers rather than coming to the market. Our customers know and trust that we are giving them the best price along with the best quality available. Because of this, coming to the market isn’t always necessary for them.”

Joshua Gatcke, fruit procurement buyer at Nathel & Nathel, said business has fluctuated since the pandemic began and the company has adapted as best it can.

“We just tried to lean into our retail customers, not try to find new customers, but we made sure we were doing the right job of our current customers, serving their needs and thinking of how to do things better,” he said. “We found some new ideas and integrated innovative technologies, such as implementing an online ordering system. I think any produce manager whether young or old will find it useful to use.”

Those at Nathel & Nathel are trying to do the best it can and focusing more on a month or two at a time, rather than taking a multiyear view of things.

“When things feel like they are uncertain, it perpetuates itself,” Gatcke said. “There’s still uncertainty, but the people here work hard and do whatever they can to make things as close to normal as we can.” 

Stefanie Katzman, executive vice president and fourth generation in the family business at S. Katzman Produce, noted throughout the pandemic, the company has experienced several different waves of shifted business trends.

“In March, as closures began, we experienced a 10-day period of mass sales as people stocked up on food and supplies, and we worked as hard as possible to keep supermarket shelves stocked so New Yorkers wouldn’t go hungry,” she said. “The next 10 days after that were the complete opposite. Everyone was staying home and we experienced one of our slowest business periods ever.”

Another shift was from foodservice to retail. As restaurants closed and people were home and cooking more, foodservice demand decreased while retail demand spiked. This impacted some of its growers, as they needed to adjust their packs to work at the retail level.

“We saw our retail customers change their buying patterns to best serve their shoppers. This was one of the most challenging elements of the pandemic for our business: adjusting to new customer shopping habits while maintaining our standards for high-quality, fresh produce,” Katzman said.

As the company looks to 2021, Katzman expects business to continue to shift as it did throughout 2020.

“We are up for the challenge,” she said. “Consumer behaviors will continue to evolve as the pandemic does. There could be different busy days in retail, new products at the retail level as people get more courageous in their kitchens, new types of businesses popping up such as home delivery services, or even restaurants trying to survive through increasing deliveries. The New York City market place and population are unlike anywhere else and we’re determined  to continue doing our best for our customers.”

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