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Food, Glorious Food

Sunday, June 11, 2006

By Dick Sherman

If you’re a true gourmet, you ought to genuflect every time you drive past 2301 Purchase Street in New Bedford. That’s the home of Sid Wainer & Son, the repository of more good food – in the raw – than you’ll find just about anywhere in New England. It’s all housed in a huge, rambling erstwhile blanket factory that sprawls behind a strip mall in a generally down-to-the-heels section of the city.

Amazing as it may seem, this unlikely facility brims with handpicked specialty produce from “the world’s finest farms”

“We stock 1,500 food items on a daily basis”, said Henry Wainer, the third generation of Wainers to operate this extraordinary business. The line is about as eclectic as you could imagine: seaweed (for salads) from Japan, olives and peppers from Greece, edible orchids from the Orient, artichokes from Tuscany, basil flown on nightly from Mexico. At Wainer's, you can identify 25 different varieties of tomatoes on any given day.

And, of course, it’s all perishable, which is why Wainer turns over his inventory six times a week, and why he’s a very good customer of the air freight people.

The business wasn’t always global. In fact, when Henry Wainer’s grandfather also named Henry – founded the company in 1914, he acquired his produce from the south coast of New England and sold it to restaurants and stores in the New Bedford area. The younger Henry, now age 53, grew up in the business, working long days beside his father and developing an abiding appreciation for fine foods. It was in the 1960’s that he visited Martha’s Vineyard and learned that the island’s seasonally busy shops offered foods from all over the world.

And that was the direction Henry took when he assumed the reins of the business after graduating from Nicholas College in 1972. (He was a go-getter even then, presiding over his class and serving as mayor of the school. He has since received the Nicholas Alumni Achievement Award for his professional achievements, and holds an honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales for his international leadership in food safety.)

Wainer has traveled the world over to identify the sources that supply him with his specialty foods. When he locates a farm that produces particularly succulent vegetables, he strikes a deal with the farmer to assure a steady flow of high quality produce from the source – be it Italy, Spain, or even Barbados – to the New Bedford warehouse. While ranging far and wide for the precise foodstuffs that sustain his company’s reputation, Wainer looks locally for a certain percentage of his inventory.

“During the local growing season.” he tells his customers, “we carry a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs produced by the farms of the region. If you prefer to purchase locally grown items,” he advises his clients, “please do indicate when you place your order.”

Quality control is, of course, a major concern for the Wainer operation. Food is flown in from all points of the compass and distributed throughout the country and beyond. But while it’s in the Wainer warehouse, it is treated with extraordinary care. The warehouse maintains nine different temperatures levels in various storage areas throughout the building. Temperatures are monitored day and night and are recorded every three hours.

The Wainer facility also contains a retail store featuring the same kinds of gourmet foods that find their way from New Bedford to some of the world’s premier restaurants. Even the staff reflects Wainer’s attention to quality: more than two-thirds are trained chefs who know food intimately and speak the language to their customers.

It doesn’t take a visitor long to comprehend the nature of Henry Wainer’s clientele. A busy employee – one of the 470 who work for the company – pauses at a packing table long enough to mention that this box is earmarked for the Hilton Hotel in Puerto Rico: that one for the Four Seasons in Las Vegas: another for the Ritz Carlton Aspen.

It all adds up to growth. Wainer said the company has “grown in multiples” over the past decade, with further physical expansion in the works. Its computer and telephone systems have been updated and or automated – all in the interests of serving a client base of more than 8,000 restaurants throughout North America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and even Iceland. “It’s an amazing industry,” said Henry Wainer.

And who could argue?

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