Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Before most people have poured their first glass of juice in the morning, the San Antonio Produce Terminal Market already has been bustling for hours.
A 28-acre industrial site on the city’s West Side, the market serves as a sort of middleman between agricultural producers and consumers. Farms in Texas, California, Mexico, and beyond grow and harvest fruit and vegetables and ship them to the market, which then puts the goods on trucks for delivery to local grocery stores, restaurants, caterers, and charitable food programs in the city.
Order-takers at the market often start their jobs around midnight, then the packers arrive, and then the drivers, so most days, truckloads of tomatoes, greens, and fruits of every kind are headed out the gates by dawn to make their way into kitchens and onto plates.
When the market was built in 1951 at a cost of $2.5 million, it was the largest wholesale market of its kind outside of Los Angeles. About 40 produce tenants moved from the former Market Square downtown and took up residence there.
Old aerial photos hung on the boardroom wall at the market show long buildings surrounded by neighborhoods, rail lines, and open land on the southern end of Zarzamora, a name that in Spanish means blackberry.
While rail service to the site ended in 2006, trucks with brightly painted trailers and sayings like “lettuce supply you” come and go, and the second- and third-generation descendants of the market’s first tenants keep the terminal humming.
“It’s rough hours, it’s a tough hoe, and it’s not an easy business,” said Unifresh founder and owner Joe Mendez, whose family has owned and operated a produce wholesale business since the earliest days of the Terminal Market. “I grew up in the market; we all knew each other as kids. Now we’re older … and it’s a very different business, but we can understand each other.”
The Produce Terminal Market is owned by a private corporation made up of stockholders who lease space at the market. Tom Preston, a retired San Antonio Police Department officer and administrative director of the market since 2001, said there are 20 to 25 tenants leasing space at the Terminal Market. They include Banana Distributing Company, B. Catalani Produce, Nino’s Fresh Cut Fruit & Veg, and many others. A board made up of tenant-shareholders meets one a month.
A new warehouse structure was added in the 1980s, and tenants have made other improvements as needed over the years. In February, an additional new cold storage warehouse and other infrastructure improvements at the market will be complete, expanding capacity and ensuring the future of the market.
“I think it was some visionary people who saw the possibility here,” Mendez said. Soon after the market was built, advances in mechanical refrigeration and more women entering the workforce after World War II contributed to changes in the way Americans shopped for groceries – at large grocery chains rather than independent grocers and daily farmers markets – and in their eating habits. “Maybe if it wasn’t for refrigeration technology, this market wouldn’t have taken off.”
Large grocery chains like H-E-B now operate their own produce terminals. The military, which at one time was such a large customer that it kept an office at the Terminal Market, also has moved on, Mendez said.
But demand is still strong, and the Mendez family’s Big State Produce continues to supply the wholesale produce market via customers like local school districts, the San Antonio Food Bank, and other commercial kitchens. Like others in the market, Big State distributes whole and fresh-cut produce, including apples, oranges, peppers, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, pineapples, and more. From time to time, a food co-op will stop in for a load of produce.
Karen Mendez, Joe’s niece, oversees 25 people, many wearing coats to keep warm as they work inside the cold storage, fresh-cut, and chlorinated wash system facilities. She said the business goes through about two pallets of jumbo carrots a week (there are 50 sacks in a pallet), and at least one pallet of melons.
In 2000, Joe Mendez launched his own business, spinning Unifresh off from Big State to specialize in food service accounts from restaurants and caterers. Unifresh stocks a full line of produce, plus specialty items needed by chef-driven restaurants – think miniature vegetables, microgreens, edible flowers, and a variety of beets and berries, for example.
“When you’re selling to a grocery store, the person in the produce department is a produce expert,” he said. “When a restaurant orders produce, it’s the same guy who is ordering meat [and everything else] he needs for the kitchen. I have to deal with buyers from restaurants differently than the buyer from a grocery store. That was my specialization.”
His company also supplies the Culinary Institute of America at the Pearl and gives tours and demonstrations for the student-chefs.
“San Antonio has really evolved as a culinary city,” Mendez said, and that’s been good for business.
Though strict sanitation and temperature standards are maintained, the Terminal Market looks much like any industrial park. Yet this one also has a neighborly feel. Workers greet one another, and owners lend a helping hand when needed. “If I run out of cabbage, I can go 10 yards down the way to get some,” Mendez said.
Just outside the gates, a newer produce market has installed advertising billboards. In 2015, Abasto Properties, an affiliate of the Abasto Mexico warehousing company, opened the San Antonio Wholesale Produce Market on the far Southeast Side as a hub for produce trade with Mexico.
Located at Loop 410 and Interstate 37, the Wholesale Produce Market promotes itself as having “geographic advantages in respect to its border with Mexico, its proximity to the largest cities in Texas.” A directory on the company website lists just over 20 produce sellers as well as providers of meat, beverages, dry goods, tortillas, and various meals.
But Unifresh’s location at the Terminal Market isn’t just about proximity to producers, major thoroughfares, or even nostalgia.
“Being here helps me service my customers better,” he said. “So even though we’re competitors, we know we all need one another, too. It is kind of an interesting relationship. Even on the board, we’re on the same team trying to do the best thing for the market. But this is how we grew up.”