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An Early Morning Look at LA's Wholesale Produce Market

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You’d be hard-pressed to argue against New York being ‘the city that never sleeps’. Just don’t bring that attitude to downtown Los Angeles at 4:30am. Here, at the LA wholesale produce market, deals are struck and days are made well before that notorious Southern California sun has had a chance to rise.

Like every other community in Los Angeles county, the LA wholesale produce market seems content to grow out and not up. What began as a single building near Central and Olympic (not far from the rail yards, of course) has since blossomed into a series of low-rising rectangles, each a few hundred feet long and open to cement docks on both sides. Within the perimeter, a few hundred workers are unloading millions of boxes of produce per year to Southern California’s grocery chains, storefronts, and local restaurants. In no uncertain terms, the LA wholesale produce market feeds us. Every day.

Along each building, vendors have their turf; some bigger than their neighbors, some tucked away quietly. Still others seem obsessed with hand-painted signs of smiling broccoli or overjoyed tomatoes; happy vegetables make happy customers. The common theme between them all is product presentation. Walking one dock from end to end, the produce transitions from leafy greens to tubers, from bags of beets to crates of kale. Everything is for sale, but nothing is individualized. Here the merchandise moves by box or larger, and those open bins of gala apples merely represent a quality sample of that vendor’s offerings. The rest of the goods are stored inside the belly of the building in large walk-in coolers. Climate-controlled, these rooms store the vast majority of the available goods on site, and proprietors can get awfully touchy about just anyone sticking their nose in. After all, you’ve got to protect your investment.

Back out front, old market buddies rib each other over cups of coffee, while individual grocers - small volume, typically buying a few boxes of produce to stock their corner market - compare prices on scraps of paper. For most, work at the market begins well before my 5am call time, which means I’ve just made it for the wind-down. Come back at 2am, I’m told. That’s when the market is really moving. For large-scale distributors like Borg Produce, time moves quickly in those darkest hours before dawn. Forklifts push pallets of fresh fruits and vegetables, some just received in from their farming origins hours before. This time of year, Chilean-grown produce is popular, and multiple buyers pore over bins of peaches to make sure they aren’t getting shorted on quality or quantity. In a couple of months, business will pick up as the Central Valley springs to life. All the distributors agree: the buying public wants their nicoise salad to be California-grown, and they’re willing to pay for it.

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Don’t take too long to stop and smell the newly-arrived mangoes, though. Hand-maneuvered pallet trucks are the kings of road, so it’s best to draft in behind one a la Die Hard With a Vengeance or risk taking some skin off of a poorly placed shin. Everything moves fast here, even when the clerks behind the counters would have you believe the market is slowing down. Nowadays, more and more orders are being placed electronically, so the need for face-to-face interaction becomes minimal. Just a few years ago, a potential buyer looking to gobble up half a ton of pineapple could find himself down at the market, struggling to stay afloat in a sea of bid prices, business cards, and back slaps. As of late, a few simple clicks and an invoice make up a sizeable portion of these transactions, with skeleton crews simply moving produce from warehouse to truck. No handshakes and admonitions over deals gone bad. Just the low whir of a few forklifts or an idling Freightliner.

That’s the future, though. Or, potentially. For now, there is still plenty of business to be done in the pre-dawn hours, right out there on the cement. That cup of coffee with a warm handshake, the exhilaration of the haggle, haven’t been stuffed into an algorithm yet. And so, the LA wholesale produce market continues on, as it has for generations. Millions of Angelenos still need to eat, which means the hardworking men and women down here still have work to do. And all before we wake up.