Baldor: Making Food Special

Food is special, as it fuels us to accomplish the mundane to the extraordinary. Without food, we are lackluster, lethargic, and lazy. But, eating just any old food calorie can starve us and even kill us, rather than nourish the body.

Healthy food topics energize me in part because I have lost family members needlessly to bad food choices. It is easy to be tantalized during countless televised football games by ten golden chicken nuggets offered for $1.49 or 14 cents apiece. Breaded chicken cubes glisten on the screen enticing us with four special sauce choices. What is most disturbing is how little a farmer earns from this crappy food. Farmers are paid as little as 3% of the retail value on most processed foods and in this case a farmer earns only four cents (4¢) for the whole set of chicken cubes! These nuggets aren’t golden to a farmer!

When we eat cheap food, it’s easy not to value the farmer that grows it! I want to support farmers and businesses that build and grow a good food culture.

So, visiting Baldor a successful business that thrives on sourcing and selling good, local food along with delectables from the around world is heartening and gets my brain cells salivating on continuing to work on a thriving food and farming economy.

The Baldor Experience

Baldor is a an exceptional fresh produce and specialty food wholesale distributor flourishing on excellence, in the backwaters of the Bronx at the Hunts Point Distribution Center. A multitude of smaller produce wholesalers fill the Center in low-slung concrete buildings separated by swaths of asphalt maneuvering and loading areas, while Baldor as one of the larger businesses occupies the former 180,000 square foot A&P warehouse space.Baldor Signage

Baldor has created the “go-to” work place for employment and great food. We were greeted with the sign “We love Baldor & Baldor loves you!” Granted, sorting, unloading, packing and distributing food is not a glamorous job, except for a few top positions, but with free medical insurance, a company store with at cost food purchasing power, cafeteria service at $4 per meal, an on-site gym, and English as a Second Language classes, it’s a great place to work. Baldor provides for their employees while supplying nurturing food for their customers’ soul.

The Cavernous Aisleways at Baldor Dressed to Protect the Food

The Cavernous Aisleways at Baldor Dressed to Protect the Food

Our group of 45 Urban Land Institute real estate professionals arrived just after 9 a.m. and donned caps, gowns, and beard covers (if needed), to enter a controlled food environment. Our tour started in the food storage warehouse section. Again, the warehouse reminded me of a cavernous COSTCO with metal shelving reaching 25 feet into the air, filled with boxes and bags of potatoes, onions, pears, winter squashes, pumpkins, apples, and more. Lower stocked shelves were laden with tiny half-pint containers filled with pepquiño (small round cucumbers with watermelon-looking skin), six-inch long corn shoots, nasturtium flowers, grape tomatoes, and mint cress (micro-greens) used to color and flavor a salad or plate. The corn shoot had a mild corn flavor while the pepquiño was a shot of cucumber, similar to eating a cherry tomato!

Baldor not only sells produce but has expanded into other specialty foods such as CHOCOLATE! Kept chilled and in its own storage room, the chocolate aroma permeated the double-garage sized high-ceilinged room. Chocolate from around the world arrived in bags, boxes and five-gallon barrels, ready for distribution to the finest retail and restaurant establishments. I was the last in the room, savoring the smell.

Connections to Local Farmers

With one-half of their total yearly offerings being local product, Baldor is keeping the regional farming economy strong. Sourcing from local farms originally started when the owner realized that delivery trucks that supplied outlying customers were coming back to the City empty. Recognizing that great food was grown regionally, Baldor trucks started returning to the City laden with local product from Hepworth Farms, a family-owned farm established in 1818 in the Hudson River Valley, Satur Farms founded in 1997 keeping 160 acres of Long Island in farming, Red Jacket Orchards beginning as a small farm in 1958 and now producing orchard products on 600 acres in the Finger Lakes region, and many more. By making a commitment to working with local farmers, regional varieties and specialties were established and the nuances of food traditions and flavors are fostered.

Having eaten an east coast Macoun (pronounced Mă cō ĕn) and a west coast Macoun (Mă coon), I have tasted the terroir–or the geography, geology, and climate of this specialty apple. Here in the northwest, I’ve done blind taste tests with the northwest’s Nash’s Best Carrots and California’s Bunny-Luv carrots and can taste the difference. There is terroir in food, as there is in wine, provided we take the time to savor and pay attention to it! Baldor strengthens the ties to terroir. Their terroir doesn’t stop with just local food, but includes farms across the country and around the world. Bringing the tastes of the minerals, water, and sunshine to customers that discern the diversity of product and the genuine flavors of real food!

Fresh Cuts

Busy Fresh Cut Room at Baldor

Busy Fresh Cut Room at Baldor

Our next stop–the 34 degrees Fahrenheit room where Fresh Cuts are produced! Ensuring our gowns and caps were secure with no stray hair, we entered what can only be described as “Willy Wonka’s” produce factory. Workers doing their tasks were donned in winter jackets and gloves underneath their sterile white clothing. A conveyor belt of peeled carrots were dropped into clean water to be scooped up by an employee and loaded either into bags for shipment or barrels for further processing. Fresh chopped onions, cubed butternut squash, and trimmed yellow beans filled garbage-can sized bins. Other employees stripped ruffled Tuscan kale leaves from its stems or separated mushroom stems and caps, for the thriving restaurants, catering, and food service clients Baldor serves.

Fresh Cuts was an unexpected business opportunity for Baldor, when a client ten years ago inquired whether cleaned, stemless and gill-less portabellas could be delivered. The customer asked, Baldor delivered and a new business venture ensued.

The WOW Factor

Prepping Beans at Baldor

Prepping Beans at Baldor

Just the stats of this company are impressive. A $400 million company, receiving 2,700 calls per day, and shipping 80,000 boxes to customers with just two pages of backorders every day. A minimum order size is $100 with an average $400 order size. Call as late as midnight for next day delivery guaranteed within a two-hour window (in NYC traffic)!

Baldor serves not only restaurants and caterers, but every private school in NYC. Next stop is feeding the City’s public school kids. Based on research, 80% of children will eat from a salad bar, if they get to make their own choices while 80% will not, if it is handed to them. Already 200 donated salad bars have been installed in public schools. Baldor is on a mission to help more children eat great produce to grow healthy kids!

Baldor makes fresh food special with their commitment to their clients, employees, and children they serve. They know it is all about the relationship. It’s the bonds that are important. Farmers make a commitment to the soil. Baldor is linked to the farmer. The customer is connected to Baldor. Baldor’s food fuels the body to accomplish the extraordinary.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. 

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Two Commercial-Scale Produce Hubs

Visualize fresh produce. Where do you see it? At the grocery store? On your plate? At your farmers market? At your local restaurant? At the farm? How do fresh fruits and vegetables leave the farm and show up on your plate? Food travels on average 1,500 miles from farm to fork. As an eating nation, we have come to expect asparagus in the fall, which is an early spring product in our northern climes, demonstrating how disconnected we really are with where our food truly comes from.

In 2014, I continued to learn more about our food system and wanted to know, “Where does produce go once it leaves the farm?”

Available wholesale produce at Hunts Point Produce Market

Wholesale produce for sale at Hunts Point Terminal Market

I toured two large, commercial scale produce food hubs, the State Farmers Market in Atlanta and the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the Bronx section of New York City (NYC), both of which occupy considerable real estate acreage, tucked away in their city’s backwaters as work-horses, employing lots of people. Each food distribution center is located in a lower rent district and on government supported properties. In total these food hubs with their satellite operations, feed about one-third of the U.S. population. The 168-acre Atlanta Market is located beneath Hartsfield International Airport’s flight path on state-owned land but is strategically located within minutes of the interstate highway system to whisk food to southeast markets. Supported by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the 329-acre Hunts Point Center is in one of NYC’s lowest income neighborhoods in the Bronx, but is well-placed to serve 20 million eaters in the New York metropolitan area, notwithstanding the rest of the northeast market.

Despite food being vital to my health and wellness, I did not know where my produce could travel and I was fortunate to learn so much on these two visits.

Georgia State Farmers Market

The State Farmers Market in Atlanta is a state-owned food hub which leases facilities to private businesses which aggregate, distribute, and market edible products throughout the southeast. On Saturday afternoon in April, the western half of the 168-acre state market is sparsely filled with small, independent vendors selling everything from giant stuffed animals, boxes of produce, and packaged goods to a handful of customers. The Georgia Department of Agriculture has redevelopment aspirations to build a more vibrant, thriving market here, which will only happen when money and legislative-will are found.

The eastern half of the property is home to private food distribution businesses that collect food from the two major southeast growing regions—the Piedmont region, a higher elevation with more clay-like soils and the coastal plains, an area with abundant water and superior growing soils–and other national and international markets to supply a burgeoning food economy.

General Produce, a privately held company located on the State Farmers Market property, occupies four warehouses with 178,000 square feet of space and serves eleven states. Cal Folds, one of the owners and members of the founding family led us on the tour of the more than 50-year old business. General Produce is a 24-hour operation sourcing and delivering fruits and vegetables to grocers, institutions, and restaurants in their own company-owned satellite equipped tractor-trailers from this central location and four other smaller facilities.

Pallets of Well-Pict Berries at General Produce

Pallets of Well-Pict Berries at General Produce

It was my first experience being in a distribution warehouse, which had the character of a COSTCO with rows of metal shelving holding abundantly filled boxes of produce from across the United States and around the world. Boxes of Well-Pict strawberries were stacked to the ceiling. Bagged Vidalia onions lay horizontally on pallets 30 or more feet deep and at least 30 feet high. Boxes of local peppers, Washington asparagus, Idaho potatoes, Chinese ginger, non-GMO Brazilian papaya, Canadian rutabagas, and oodles of other produce were waiting to be ordered by customers for shipping to stores, restaurants, and institutions. According to Cal, all food except that which is storable, such as potatoes and apples, are shipped within four days of arrival at this facility to their final destination.

Banana ripening enclosures at General Produce

Banana ripening enclosures at General Produce

What was most intriguing was General Produce’s 22 banana ripening rooms! The average American eats 10 pounds of bananas per year! (Calculate it! The U.S. population consumes more than 3 billion pounds of bananas per year!) Bananas arrive green from Central America. To hasten the ripening process bananas are placed in ethylene-filled boxes for three to five days to achieve the yellow glow. Ethylene is considered the “ripening hormone” which naturally occurs in apples and pears, but can be chemically formulated for creating the optimal banana!

I was wowed by the Atlanta Market but didn’t know another mega-food market was in my future.

Hunts Point Food Distribution Center

I arrived in NYC after a non-stop cross-country flight on an October Sunday evening. I willed myself to be at a 6 a.m. Monday morning bus departure to ride to the sprawling Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, a 329-acre wholesale food market with the new Fulton Fish Market, the Hunts Point Cooperative Market, the New York City Terminal Market, and a multitude of other food-oriented businesses.

Skies were just starting to lighten, when a busload of 45 Urban Land Institute real estate professionals arrived at the bustling New York City Terminal Market–the produce market. About 50% of the City’s produce moves through the 660,000 square foot warehouse space stretched along four narrow buildings, which if laid end to end would stretch more than one-mile long. Just the Terminal Market generates 3000 jobs and $2.3 billion in sales. In the wee hours, long-haul trucks lumber down the driving areas between the buildings lining up to park perpendicularly to the open-air loading docks delivering fresh product. At our 7 a.m. arrival, the larger trucks had left and the smaller delivery trucks were being filled with orders of fruits, vegetables, and packaged goods to be delivered to restaurants, convenience stores, schools, and other customers throughout Metro NYC. In the pre-dawn light, not wanting to disrupt commerce, our group wound its way between hawkers, piled high dollies, and awaiting trucks.

Red Potatoes Being Sorted at Hunts Point

Red Potatoes Being Sorted at Hunts Point

We slipped into Joseph Fierman & Son, Inc., a long-established potato, onion, and other root vegetable sorting and distribution business. Huge bins, and 50 pound boxes and sacks of potatoes were awaiting processing. Once placed on the conveyor belt, the tubers were mechanically sorted and dropped into sacks rotating on the automated, analog-scale, packaging machine. In the pristine, all-concrete room, the clickity-clack of the machine was rhythmic, but noisy. As the sun was starting to brighten, we walked across the truck staging and maneuvering area to the Tomato Division of Armata Fruit & Produce. Tomatoes were rolling down a conveyor belt (with an occasional bounce) and each orbs’ color was assessed by an electronic sensor directing the fruit to the appropriate chute and an awaiting box with similarly colored fruit. As boxes filled, workers stacked them by readiness for market, with greener-hued tomatoes needing more maturing prior to store delivery. The Armata spokesperson said the 40,000 pound batch of tomatoes from Williams Farms that we were watching would be processed within three hours. Armata expected to sort tomatoes from two more farms by the end of the day!

About 9 a.m. we arrived at Baldor the pre-eminent NYC food supplier with $400 million in annual sales. Baldor is the New York, Boston, and Washington, DC “go to” food supplier serving hotels, restaurants, private schools, and retail. I was so impressed by Baldor that it deserves its own story.

So Much to Learn

As a kid, my Dad taught me to grow tomatoes and took me blueberry and strawberry picking. My grandmother lived in rural western New York and I picked U-pick apples on her neighbor’s farm. I have a 5,000 square foot city lot with a plum tree, blueberry bushes and over-wintering garlic getting ready for the next agricultural season. I visit the University District Farmers Market regularly. I get my food from many different retail outlets.

However, visiting the Atlanta State Farmers Market and Hunts Point and feeling the pulse of the thriving wholesale food economy is incredible and so different from anything I had ever experienced. Watching the workers swiftly move large quantities of perishable, tender product that must be appealing to the eye as well as the stomach is astonishing. The food distribution story is unknown to most, but an important to appreciate. Our eating culture is dependent on ensuring this system flourishes, as having abundant, good-tasting, nutritious food is vital to a healthy community. Next time you eat asparagus begin to imagine how it got to your plate!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on ULI-NW’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. 

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