Wholesale Market Highlights Real-Life Economics

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Hunts Point in Bronx, N.Y., is the largest wholesale food market in the country. The action there happens late at night. The ebb and flow at the market, who's buying when, and at what price, are a real-life economics lesson compressed into a single night.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

If you're eating your Thanksgiving meals somewhere between Philadelphia and Boston, chances are the Brussels sprouts and the carrots came through the Hunts Point produce market. The market in the Bronx is the largest wholesale produce market in the country. Hunts Point wholesalers are busy when most of us are asleep.

Adam Davidson and Chana Joffe-Walt of NPR's Planet Money team spent a night following the buying and the selling. And they began their story at 10 p.m.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Eddie One Way need some pears.

ADAM DAVIDSON: His name is actually Edward Joseph(ph). They call him Eddie One Way because he wants prices to go one way, down. He's a buyer, one of thousands of guys who show up here every night.

JOFFE-WALT: They're buying for pretty much every grocery store, restaurant, corner market in the North East. If you have ever bought a golden delicious apple or ate a salad in a restaurant between Philly and Boston, chances are it came through here. And it is nothing like when you or I buy salad at a restaurant. There are no posted prices. It is pure supply and demand.

DAVIDSON: And right now demand. That's Eddie One Way, the buyer, is looking for supply.

Mr. EDWARD JOSEPH: I'm still here with my salesman. Oh, Mr. Timmy(ph).

DAVIDSON: Timmy, is Timmy Sampson. He is a salesman at the largest wholesaler here De Rigo Brothers(ph).

JOFFE-WALT: Eventually, Eddie One Way finds Timmy.

Mr. JOSEPH: Here's Timmy.

JOFFE-WALT: And they enter into a ritual that will happen thousands of times throughout the night. They try to negotiate a price. Eddie thinks $15 for a box of pears seems fair. Timmy doesn't.

Mr. TIMMY SAMPSON (Salesman, De Rigo Brothers): No way.

Mr. JOSEPH: We could do with�

Mr. SAMPSON: I charged you 20 yesterday.

Mr. JOSEPH: Yesterday is gone.

Mr. SAMPSON: Eighteen.

Mr. JOSEPH: Today is a new day. It's a new horizon.

Mr. SAMPSON: Twenty dollars yesterday, 18 today. That's it.

Mr. JOSEPH: Stay close, Timmy.

Mr. SAMPSON: Why do you want to pay 15 while it's 18?

Mr. JOSEPH: I'd like to pay 13, but I'm being generous.

Mr. SAMPSON: That's it, brother. That's it, man. Eighteen is the right number. You know, it's what the worth.

Mr. JOSEPH: The night is still young.

DAVIDSON: Eventually, Eddie One Way walks away. The night is still young. At this hour, the sellers, guys like Timmy, feel like they are in control. They don't want to give anything away to cheap yet. There's lots more buyers still to come. But Eddie, the buyer, is hoping that if he comes back later in the night, Timmy won't have sold that much. He'll be desperate to get rid of his pears and will accept a lower price. But Eddie is really taking a risk here.

JOFFE-WALT: I know. I actually thought this risk play out with carrots. And it was really stressful. Jeff Steinberg(ph), he's a buyer like Eddie. And he was looking for this one particular kind of carrots, fancy one, loose California's. And I followed him around walking the aisles one seller to another. And at first everyone has the carrots, but Jeff is offended or at least acts offended by the high prices. And then an hour passes. And now nobody has loose California's anymore. Jeff can't find the carrots he needs at any price. So he's thinking he may have to settle for something inferior, loose Canadians.

DAVIDSON: Jeff asks a seller named Carlos(ph) how much for the loose Canadians. Carlos tells him eight bucks a box.

Mr. JEFF STEINBERG (Buyer): I'll be right back.

JOFFE-WALT: What's he doing now?

CARLOS (Seller, Hunts Point): Going to look at something, then he's going to comeback and tell me he doesn't like.

JOFFE-WALT: Where is it - what does he mean that he's not going to like it?

CARLOS: Probably because they're not good enough for his customers. He's fairly picky.

JOFFE-WALT: And sure enough Jeff comes out of the warehouse shaking his head.

Mr. STEINBERG: No good.

JOFFE-WALT: No good. Then where you're going to look for carrots next?

Mr. STEINBERG: That's a good question because I pretty much looked all over the place.

JOFFE-WALT: So, it's 11:30 at night and carrots are your problem at moment.

Mr. STEINBERG: At the moment. It's coming down to that get hour where I'm probably going to have to pay what they wanted. But I don't want to pay.

(Soundbite of beeping)

JOFFE-WALT: Around midnight, it starts to get hectic. Buyers fill the streets, sellers weave their arms and yell into faces and cell phones. There's a lot of sweating.

DAVIDSON: This is the point in the night when the market really changes. There are none of those people buying fancy stuff for high-end restaurants and specialty Manhattan stores. They're all gone. There's no more high-end guys like Jeff inspecting every carrot.

JOFFE-WALT: A whole new group of buyers enters the market now. And they're buying for not-so-fancy places - bodegas and grocery stores and working class neighborhoods, pushcart vendors. They're not quite as concerned with getting the best possible quality. They want a good price.

DAVIDSON: It's in the second phase of the dynamics between sellers and buyers starts to shift. Remember early in the night when Eddie One Way had to go searching for someone to sell him pears. Over the next couple of hours, it's the reverse. The sellers are looking for the buyers.

JOFFE-WALT: That is exactly what a guy named Mike Zack(ph), Big Mike, is trying to do right now.

Mr. MIKE ZACK (Seller): No.

JOFFE-WALT: We catch with him toward the end of the night.

DAVIDSON: Earlier in the night buyers were begging Big Mike to lower his prices. And he didn't, he refused. And that worked out pretty well for him. He sold a lot of red grapes and mangoes and made a killing in persimmons. But now that daylight is approaching, he's got piles and piles of oranges from Chile. And he is the one begging. He's pleading with one of his regular customers, a guy named Amerigo Pereira(ph) to buy some of those oranges. Amerigo is pretty clear about his wishes.

Mr. AMERIGO PEREIRA (Buyer): No oranges.

Mr. ZACK: Kind of give it a medical today. You got to be nice.

Mr. PEREIRA: What part of no oranges don't you understand?

Mr. ZACK: There, I'll give you one pound.

Mr. PEREIRA: No, stop playing.

Mr. ZACK: Be nice today.

Mr. PEREIRA: Stop (unintelligible).

Mr. ZACK: Be nice in front of camera.

Mr. PEREIRA: There's a lady present.

Mr. ZACK: Be nice in front of camera.

Mr. PEREIRA: Shut up already.

Mr. ZACK: Can I give you one (unintelligible)?

Mr. PEREIRA: No, Mike, no.

Mr. ZACK: Just be nice.

Mr. PEREIRA: No.

Mr. ZACK: Why?

Mr. PEREIRA: I don't need it.

Mr. ZACK: One skin only.

Mr. PEREIRA: No.

JOFFE-WALT: At around 4 a.m. all the sellers in the market find themselves pretty much in the same situation as Big Mike - tired and with too many oranges. Listen to Henry(ph) so tired.

HENRY (Seller): Oranges, oranges are moving slow. So, you know, you try to give everybody some oranges, even if they don't want it they're taking them. Do you know what I mean? (Unintelligible) this is like - what time you go at bed at night?

JOFFE-WALT: What time do I go to bed?

HENRY: Yes.

JOFFE-WALT: Probably like 11.

HENRY: So, this is like your 9 o' clock. You know, I hate the day.

DAVIDSON: What, you hate the day?

HENRY: Oh, I hate it.

DAVIDSON: What do you hate about the day?

HENRY: I don't know. The sun, everything. I get a headache. How are you my friend?

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).

HENRY: I just don't like the sun. I don't like it. I like the dark.

JOFFE-WALT: At 5 a.m. Henry heads home. He rakes some leaves in the front yard and then heads to sleep just as the sun comes out.

DAVIDSON: The rest of the world wakes up. And later that day, a fancy grocery store in Greenwich, Connecticut might have some very nice but kind of pricey tomatoes, a high-end restaurant in Manhattan may be offering the chef's tomato bisque.

JOFFE-WALT: But further out in poor neighborhoods in South Boston, Brooklyn, Queens, tomatoes will be very hard to come by. Oranges though will be very cheap and there will be lots of them.

NORRIS: That was Chana Joffe-Walt and Adam Davidson of NPR's Planet Money team. We'll have more about Hunts Point on Chicago Public Radio's �This American Life,� this weekend.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is NPR National Public Radio.

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