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Gourmet Grocer

Sunday, April 2, 2000

For as long as he can remember, Henry Wainer has lived and breathed the excitement, the color and the fast pace of the produce business.
A New Bedford native, the owner of Sid Wainer & Son Specialty Produce and Specialty Foods grew up helping his father sell fruits and vegetables at 6 Rockdale Ave. “If I wanted to be with dad, I went to work,” said Mr. Wainer.
Now an internationally known and respected supplier for top quality restaurants, Sid Wainer & Son began as a local produce shop known as Wainer Brothers Wholesale Produce in 1914, started by Mr. Wainer’s grandfather, Henry. The shop was originally located adjacent to what is now the Whaling Museum, and later moved near the site of the current YMCA.
The food company, which Mr. Wainer took over full-time from his father, Sid, during the 1980s, has since moved to Purchase Street in the North End. It boasts a 225,000-square-foot warehouse to hold wholesale supplies and two retail stores, Friendly Fruit Supermarket, and the Gourmet Outlet.
“When I was a kid a lot of the supermarkets were family run, with a strong European influence and lots of ethnic foods,” Mr. Wainer recalled. He credits the Portuguese community with raising his appreciation of natural ingredients. “Store owners knew how their customers liked their cuts of meat, or what vegetables they shopped for.”
That attention to his customers is a driving force behind Mr. Wainer’s business ethic. He recalled working on Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1970s, supplying local chefs with produce. “Chefs want things like good berries and mesclun greens and products that aren’t available all year round. I decided that I would get these items for them,” said Mr. Wainer. “That’s been my mission ever since.”
Although Sid Wainer & Son buys from local farms, many of their specialty items travel here from all over the world. Neatly packed in boxes, awaiting shipment to restaurants from Boston to San Francisco are truffles from Italy, rhubarb from Holland, sugar plums from New Zealand, and long stem artichokes from Tuscany. Sid Wainer & Son long stem artichokes received the gold medal in the Outstanding Food Service category for the last two years at the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade Fancy Food Show.
“Anything grown on a farm that’s agricultural or forested in woods and is allowed in the United States, we have,” said Mr. Wainer. That includes edible orchids, nasturtiums and pansies. There are nine different temperature zones in the warehouse with temperatures recorded every three hours, enabling foods to be stored at their premium temperature. Bananas are in the warmest room.
“Tomorrow morning these bananas will be on college campuses and in hospitals all over the Northeast,” Mr. Wainer said. Produce remains in the warehouse for only a matter of hours, before being shipped to customers. The business deals directly with chefs from restaurants all over the country, including the California Grill at the Contemporary Resort in Orlando and the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. “I have 35 chefs working for me, a lot of whom used to be customers, who share a passion for great food,” Mr. Wainer said. These chefs work closely with their customers, helping them plan and expand their menus. “We’re like a think tank for food,” said salesman David Zuanelli.
Although Sid Wainer & Son’s premiere business is to supply restaurants in the United States, Bermuda, the Caribbean and parts of the United Kingdom, the company also provides an outlet where area residents may shop. At the Gourmet Outlet, customers may purchase not only any of the fresh fruits and vegetables that can be found in the warehouse. Such delicacies as caviar, vinegars and olive oils, mustards, smoked meats and fish, packaged soups, assorted grains and beans, and fruit purees sport the Jansal Valley label. Samples are laid out for customers to taste and chefs stand ready to help. This reporter tasted a delicious combination of Brie cheese, fig compote and chopped pecans, warmed and served on a water cracker.
“We like to talk one-on-one with our customers and help them plan a meal or try out a new idea,” said Chef Joyce Costa. She describes working at Sid Wainer & Son as “a case of true love, it’s a wonderful family atmosphere.”
Indeed, Mr. Wainer says there is little turnover among the ranks of his 400 employees. Tome Furtado, who is now Director of Operations, has been with the company for 27 years. Sales and Marketing representative, Nancy Immel who hails from Colorado says that the company is the reason she moved east. Carlos Catunto has been with the company for nine years. According to Mr. Wainer, Carlos is a key figure in “making sure it all gets done.”
But if there is little change in staffing, there is often something new in product. Mr. Wainer is proud of one of his newest finds, baby squash with blossoms attached. He is developing a line of soy sauces from Japan that are barrel aged for 14 months. “The yeast they use to make the sauce has been in the family for four generations,” said Mr. Wainer.
In addition, the company is building an audiovisual room, a state-of-the-art kitchen where eight chefs can work at one time and a formal dining room for 12. Chefs will be able to come to exchange ideas, taste new foods, and develop menus. Mr. Wainer foresees its use by Disney chefs, cruise lines, major hotel chains and the American Culinary Federation.
Mr. Wainer has recently created a partnership with Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. He sees this as an opportunity for students to get a “real life experience”, to visit his facility, taste new foods, and learn about shipping and receiving, quality control and food safety.
“We are a leader in food safety,” Mr. Wainer said. “We are the only HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) certified company in the United States. Our food safety program was the one written for NASA for the astronaut program.”
But Mr. Wainer is not only interested in the education of college students. He and his wife, Marion, recently visited the classroom of their youngest daughter, Sara, 8, at the DeMello School in Dartmouth. “We brought in products from 20 different countries and the children tasted them and learned about geography at the same time,” Mr. Wainer said.
Mr. Wainer’s enthusiasm for his work is obvious. He acknowledges that with greater ease of transportation, foods from remote parts of the globe can be whisked to diner’s tables in a matter of hours.
“Five years ago you could only get fresh figs two months of the year, now you can get them ten,” he said.
And his vision for the future? “This is a third generation company,” said Mr. Wainer. “I want it to continue forever.”