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Cheaper Produce In Chinatown

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 22, 2007

A hat tip to Matthew Caito of Imagination Farms and Caito Foods for sending over this audio piece from NPR, entitled Chinatown Vendors Ripe for Bargains. The thesis is that consumers can get produce significantly less expensively if they purchase in local Chinatowns:

Mr. JEFFREY RUHALTER: I shop there all the time. Anytime I pass, tomatoes, three pounds for a dollar.

CHOW: Jeffrey Ruhalter works as a butcher a few blocks away. He also runs a wholesale produce business.

Mr. RUHALTER: I’ve been paying almost 75 cents a pound when I buy it wholesale. They have it three pounds for a dollar. Do I understand it? Not in your life.

Why is the produce so inexpensive?

Ms. WEI TRAN LAN IP (Produce Customer, Chinatown): (Foreign language spoken)

Wei Tran Lan Ip is eyeing the fruit at one of her favorite stores in Chinatown. For $6.50 she gets three pounds of bananas, eight oranges, a bunch of celery and two papayas. That same list of items costs $15 at a nearby supermarket chain.

Ip’s friend and colleague Lana Chung translates.

Ms. LANA CHUNG: (Translating) I buy my food every day because it’s much fresher.

CHOW: Outdoor stalls and small grocers sell most of the produce in this part of town, and they do a surprising amount of business, drawing out the same customers every day.

Ms. CHUNG: Chinese people… they always believe that if a fresh vegetable and food is (unintelligible) put into the refrigerator, it will taste much, much better at the street.

CHOW: It turns out this shopping pattern is what drives cheaper prices in Chinatown. Because when Chung says fresh, she also means ripe. And for wholesale distributors, ripe means stuff that’s about to go bad.

They quote some produce wholesalers explaining the situation:

Frank Chambri sells to grocery stores in New York and to Chinatown vendors.

Mr. FRANK CHAMBRI (Produce Distributor): A riper product is definitely worth less money, and people who buy today to eat today can buy a riper product.

CHOW: Supermarkets that sell to people who shop once a week will pay more money for fruits and vegetables that have additional shelf life. They also have to deal with higher labor costs, rent and transportation. All of this adds to the cost of the tomatoes on their shelves.

Steven Katzman is the president of wholesale distributor S. Katzman. He says Chinatown vendors can sell cheaply precisely because they sell a lot.

Mr. STEVEN KATZMAN (President, S. Katzman Produce): They’re volume customers. They’re still an ethnic group that does do a lot of cooking. They sit down and have a dinner, where, you know, instead of fast food. If you go back to cultures that still have a family dinner, they’re the people who are buying it, and if they’re buying in volume, they’re buying it for less. They’ll fight for the money.

An interesting little piece. It doesn’t only apply to Chinatown. Many years ago, Dick Spezzano took us to see a Tianguis Mexican-themed store and pointed out a big display of tomatoes that were too ripe to be sold in a Vons but perfect for making Salsa.

The story is a good reminder that the biggest don’t necessarily get the best prices. It is the ones who can be flexible enough to buy the good deals that get the best prices.

Listen to the NPR piece right here:

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