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Cream of the Crops

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

New Bedford – When diners in upscale eateries – from Radius, one of Boston’s hottest restaurants, to the four-star Victoria & Albert’s at Walt Disney World in Orlando – bite into a delectable marinated Dutch yellow tomato, they almost surely have no idea of the unlikely journey it took to reach their table.

Of course, the golden vegetables came from Holland. But it first made a stop in New Bedford.

To be more precise, after a trans-Atlantic flight, the tomato arrived at a red brick warehouse sitting amid hollowed-out textile mills and weed-enveloped railroad tracks – surely one of the most unexpected crossroads of the food world.

But this seaport city, long ago known as the whaling capital of the world and then as one of New England’s greatest mill towns, is home to Sid Wainer & Son, a food emporium that inspires gastronomic gushing from chefs across America and beyond.

New Bedford would seem a surprising place where a pastry chef can score those delicate California Froggy Hollow peaches needed to concoct an $11 dessert offered at Radius.

But some of the world’s best chefs rely on Wainer and Son, whose cavernous warehouse rise above a strip mall, for edible miniature roses from Israel, white anchovies from Tuscany, and smoked salmon from the Shetland Islands.

From a site that used to be a blanket-making factory, a vast cornucopia of food is placed into refrigerated trucks bound not only to replace in New Bedford, but the Hyatt in New Orleans, Glennmore Country Club in Keswick, VA, and two of Chicago’s ritzier restaurants, Spiaggia and Everest.

“And to think we’re in New Bedford,” said chef Joyce Costa, offering a taste of Brie cheese and fig compote hors d’euvres from the kitchen counter of the company’s public gourmet store. Underscoring the company’s high standards, Costa, like all the sales staff at Sid Wainer and Son, is a chef.

Once upon a time, more than 150 years ago, whale hunting and New Bedford were synonymous. This was the place from which in 1841 Herman Melville set out for the sea on a voyage that inspired “Moby Dick”.

The economic emphasis shifter to land in the late 1800s when dozens of massive mills created New Bedford’s industrial skyline near the waterfront. After World War I, New Bedford’s economy was booming and the city hit its highest population of 130,000. But when the stock market crashed in 1929 so did the textile industry. Despite lean years, industrial park and a new commercial pier – but it still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

But through New Bedford’s ebbs and flows, Sid Wainer and Son has thrived.

The Company was founded in 1914 by Henry Wainer’s grandfather who supplied produce from New England to restaurants and stored by horse and buggy.

Henry Wainer, the company’s president who turned 50 in June, grew up working at his father’s side.

“I woke up at 3 am and worked until 10 all of my life,” said Wainer, who graduated from Nichols College in Dudley in 1972 and has successfully expanded the family business.

Today the sprawling complex includes nine temperature-regulated storage rooms along with the gourmet shop. The company also is opening an experimental multimedia kitchen and amphitheater. About 370 employees work round the clock to keep food shipped in from 40 countries moving to its final destination. The company has attracted chefs from across the country who have moved to the New Bedford area because they share Wainer’s passion for food. A team of chefs tastes thousands of items each year and only the best get the Wainer seal of approval.

Wainer’s face beams as he shows off his products. He has a story for each one. He knows exactly the farm it came from and, in most cases, knows the farmer who cultivated it.

For example, he points to a crate of olives worth $40,000 and says he gets them from a Spanish bullfighter in Cataluna who turned his bull farm into an orchard. Or, he lets you smell the fresh truffles that were sniffed out of the ground by a dog he met in Italy.

If Wainer tastes something he likes, he gets it. He has stocked red baby bananas ever since he, his wife, and four children vacationed in Barbados and become enchanted with the sweet fruits.

“What an opportunity it is to be in the food business,” Wainer says with a smile. “The work is a small dining place.”

Scott Hunnel, chef of Victoria & Albert’s at Disney World, said he has ordered from the company for four years. “Their knowledge of the ingredient is exceptional,” Hunnel said. “If I want a wild French asparagus, they know what I’m talking about.”

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