New Bedford - It is, perhaps, New England’s best-kept culinary secret, this 150,000-square-foot oasis of incredible edibles housed in a former brick blanket factory tucked away in a nondescript strip mall. But any chef or caterer worth his or her tomatilloes will tell you that Sid Wainer & Son is not simply a place to stop and shop.
Ever since it was founded in the early 1900s, this wholesale produce and specialty food business has been a palatable paradise. As 47-Year-old Henry Wainer, the third generation to run the business (his grandfather was the original Henry and ran the business as “Wainer Bros, Produce;” his father was Sid Wainer) says with a smile; “Walk through here, and you won’t believe what you’ll find.”
Indeed, there are more foods that you can shake a (cinnamon) stick, an endless array of products that redefines the word “fresh.” Tomatoes (one of the 30 varieties) that were hand picked in Spain just hours ago. Herbs plucked from Israeli soil the day before. Raspberries looking as pristine as they did on the vine in New Zealand yesterday.
Nearly 80 percent of the produce is bought directly from their growers, and “half of what comes in goes out that same night,” explains Wainer, who ships, via a fleet of 50 refrigerated trucks and by air, to more than 5,000 restaurants and hotels nationwide. (Approximately 1,000 on Cape and Islands alone), and about 50 Caribbean resorts.
“Besides their unbelievable selection of food, I rely on Sid Wainer’s connections,” explains Shane Coughlin, executive chef for Chatham Wayside Inn and Christian’s.
“If I need a certain food that no one has heard of, I can be sure they will find it for me.”
Caters to Celebrities
Wainer also supplies to most of the major airlines, and a myriad of business, including Harry & David, Walt Disney World and Neiman-Marcus. Celebrities also give Wainer food for thought: When The Rolling Stones rolled into Boston last summer, he supplied them with organic produce; the food that was served at Rose Kennedy’s last four birthday parties came from here (glazed rose petals were a hit); and when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was a guest at a luncheon at Harvard last winter, she asked for cherries, though they were out of season. (Wainer had them flown in from New Zeeland.)
Such a got place is awfully cold: There are seven refrigerated rooms in the warehouse - all with varying temperatures, checked every three hours for accuracy. Each is neatly stocked with an array of perishable foods, some of which define pronunciation. And though you can find your garden - variety vegetables here, it’s the yellow - foot chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms, watermelon radishes (whose meat looks like a pink grapefruit), Buddha Hand (a citrus yellow camel with 17 humps), haricot vert (super thin French green beans) and 1,996 other varieties of produce that will leave you either shaking your head in wonderment or licking your lips in anticipation.
“I only buy from Sid Wainer because there simply is no fresher,” says caterer Carol Williams, owner of Osterville Fine Foods, who has been shopping here since she opened her business four years ago.
Today Williams, along with her assistant Gretchen Foresman, is making her first in - person visit as she prepares her menus for the summer season.
Williams spends a couple of hours tasting from lavish buffer Henry Wainer and his sales associated Nancy Immel have enticingly prepared for her. By the time she leaves, Williams ordered Spanish caperberries, roasted red and yellow peppers from Greece, basilinfused olive oil and green olive tapenade from France, smoked salmon from the Shetland Islands and cabernet and pine-nut gnocchi made in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
“My guests deserve only the best,” Williams adds. “And here is where I get it.”
The public can get it: Though the general public cant visit the warehouse, they can purchase the same top-quality foods at The Gourmet Outlet, a six-room store, Wainer opened in 1995. A refrigerated room holds wheels of smoked cheddar, Gouda and fontinella; nearby are more then seven varieties of goat cheese (including one infused with wild berries) made in the Canadian Appalachian.
Across the room is a display featuring 20 varieties of olives; there’s even a tasting bar at which customers cam sample the imported goodies before purchasing.
Other rooms hold more wonders: coffee and teas from around the world, pates and terrines from Provence, prosciutto flown in from Italy, 12-year old barrel-aged Italian balsamic vinegar (at $100 a pop), edible Japanese orchids and lower-in-fat sausages, such as smoked chicken with organic leeks. Don’t overlook the freezer - case, with exotic fruit purees and nearly 40 kinds of pasta, including roasted sweet potato ravioli and blue cheese and candied walnut mezzalune (filled pasta). There’s even a flower cart with New Zeeland Calla lilies and sweet peas from Holland. (Yes, The Gourmet Outlet accepts credit cards.)
A “personal relationship”
“People don’t mind paying, because they know they are buying quality,” says Wainer, standing in a locker that’s crammed with $15,000 worth of winter black truffles ($369 a pound) and giant Beluga caviar ($36.95 an ounce). And though the foods represent a worldwide whirlwind, Wainer also buys foods grown (or raised) locally, such as thyme from Westport and ostrich meat from Dartmouth.
“Supporting local agriculture helps the environment, the regional economy and helps preserve the open spaces that make New England so unique,” he says.
Lotsa food. Lotsa bucks.
Since the business it privately held. Wainer won’t divulge how much money he, or the company, pull in annually. He does admit that business “is so good we’ve grown every year for the past five years,” and that office and warehouse space is expanded annually. His business succeeds, he insists, because he believes, “in going that extra mile. I have a personal relationship with just about all my farmers.”
Holding onto tradition is also important to Wainer: He beams when he relates the story of how his award-winning mustard is make by a woman in France - “on the same press her grandfather six-times removed used back in the 16th century. That kind of using is important to me.
Also important to his: sanitary working conditions. For a company with so much hustle and bustle - not to mention crates of food from all corners of the world - the floors of the store and warehouse are clean - as in “so clean you could eat off the floor.” Wainer’s staff also washes and cleans his refrigerated trucks nightly; a state-of-the-art indoor pest control system is located in the warehouse.)
"I learned the business from the bottom up, and I do things the right way - the way my father taught me,” says Wainer. “Customers are the most important part of our business, and I will stop nothing to get them what they want.”
Tempting displays include watermelon radish, artichokes, eggplant, baby asparagus and peppers. A dish of Cabernet and Roasted Garlic Gnocchi with Pine Nuts, is one of the dishes available for sampling at Sid Wainer & Son in New Bedford, a specialty food and produce company.