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Produce King

Thursday, October 17, 1996

New Bedford Henry Wainer is on the phone in his office checking on something. When he hangs up, he looks up and says, “Hillary Clinton will be at the Kennedy School at Harvard this week,” an appearance not yet announced publicly. “We also know about John Kennedy’s wedding,” he says. Then Wainer offers that he learns in advance about many major events at least on the East Coast and in Caribbean Islands, where he does most of his business largely because, whatever may be going on, everyone has to eat.

Henry Wainer, 46 is the third generation to run the wholesale produce and specialty foods business begun by his grandfather (who was also named Henry) at the turn of the century. Sid Wainer & Son, which expects to gross more than $25 Million this year, has built a reputation for being able to get anything to anyone at any time. So when Martha Stewart’s office is photographing a spread on tree-ripened plums or exotic melons, Henry Wainer gets the call. When legendary Zabar’s in Manhattan needs a particular Scottish smoked salmon, it’s Henry Wainer again. When a chef in Boston or Charleston can’t find figs for a fig tart anywhere in the country, that’s another mission for Wainer. So are specialty items for Harry & David’s famous fruit-by-mail business, foods for the Neiman-Marcus stores and catalog, and imported goods for the famous Ann Arbor delicatessen, Zingerman’s.

Henry Wainer goes a mile a minute, reeling off temperatures, quantities, growers, fields, crop yields. His 74-year-old father, Sid has made Henry president of the company and now sits way back, watching the action. When he’s not in Florida with his wife Marion, “I chase money,” says Sid.

Sid Wainer and his son Henry, in their produce and specialty foods warehouse, which supplies more than 2,000 hotels and restaurants

Henry Wainer invited a reporter into his office while a man many years his senior, introduced as a consultant, is on hand. Why he needs a publicist at his elbow eludes the visitor. Henry is born a showman.

Like his grandfather, Henry Wainer knows his farmers and prides himself on this and on having learned his business from the bottom up. Since he was a kid, he’s been riding into Boston at 3AM, he’s fond of saying. Wainer thinks of it as going “up the street” then admits, “Three A.M on a foggy morning – it’s a long ride.”

In order to supply more than 2,000 hotels and restaurants, Wainer buys much of his produce directly from growers in California, Central and South America, Israel, Australia, and New Zealand. His refrigerated trucks pick up containers at Logan Airport, bring them back to New Bedford for repacking, then ship the items to Wainer’s upscale customers. The company delivers 500 to 700 fresh items including assorted baby lettuce, radicchio, Chinese long beans, gold beets, cactus leaves, Portobello, mushrooms, squash, blossoms, star fruit, Scotch bonnet pepper, baby leeks, yellow Finn and Yukon gold potatoes, jicama, lemongrass, tomatilloes, wine grapes, and a number of edible flowers, including nasturtiums, pansies, and Johnny jump-ups. “We’ve got every variety of forested mushrooms in the world.” Wainer says.

He insists that even with this roundabout route from the grower to the table, the food arrives in pristine condition.

“The quality is very high, and the price is a little high-but not much,” says Martin Frost, chef of the Four Seasons Hotel on Nevis, in the Caribbean. Wainer delivers weekly to Nevis and neighboring Caribbean resorts. Frost says that whatever the weather, Wainer’s produce arrives.

Wainer buys only “top quality” says Kevin Maher of Coosemans Boston Inc., a wholesaler and importer based at the New England Produce Center in Chelsea that sometimes sells to Wainer. Maher notes that all distributors are getting into specialty produce. “It’s very competitive”

Indeed, where years ago the sign of an avant-garde restaurant was a beautiful salad of baby lettuces, now the greens are standard fare. So are fresh herbs, fresh wild mushrooms and fresh berries - year round. Until the culinary glory years of the 1980s this sort of bounty was virtually unheard of.

Henry Wainer joined his father’s company full time in the early 1970s when he was known as “Sid’s Kid” on Martha’s Vineyard, where he sold local produce to chefs during the summer months. In the fall these cooks headed to winter resorts and wanted to keep using foods no longer in season. Early on, Wainer - a quick study - learned a valuable lesson: Although “everybody supports local agriculture and regional cuisine,” chefs also want raspberries in the middle of winter.

Meanwhile, as Sid Wainer explains it, he had decided to sell his business, “I started with one truck and went into the Boston Market, peddled my stores and got rid of my stuff.” Over the years business had grown to two trucks, then three. “One day someone wanted to buy me out, and I wasn’t feeling good I said, ‘Henry, you want this business?’”

He did, but he wanted to change it. Henry headed for California to find farmers who could supply him year round. Goldbud Farms in Placerville, Calif., not far from Lake Tahoe, was the first tree-ripened fruit farm with which he made an arrangement. Wainer describes Goldbud as “the best farm in the world,” (he uses the word “best” a lot), then goes on to describe trees on the terraced slopes of mountains, all facing the sun. “When the sun sets, he keeps as much warmth on the trees as he can, so he keeps a lot of the sugar in the fruit,” Wainer says.

At a tasting in The Gourmet Outlet, a small store Wainer opened two years ago in his converted 19th-century Beacon Blanket Factory, he brings out Goldbud fruits. He cuts into an Indian blood peach, which is fuzzy outside with a dark red flesh, Asian pears. Royal gala and fuji apples. All the fruits are bursting with flavor.

“We have a relationship with over 400 farms now,” he says. “The key to success is sourcing produce and marrying it with chefs’ needs.”

“There are some definite advantages to buying direct (from growers) and some trickiness to it,” says David Doctorow, head produce buyer from Bread & Circus stores, who also deals directly with growers. In the produce business, he says there’s a fine line between having items available all the time and being able to move the inventory.

In its early years, Bread & Circus split loads of produce with Sid Wainer & Son. “I enjoyed doing business with him,” says Doctorow. Wainer still occasionally supplies B & C. In one of his many mammoth walk-in refrigerators, with boxes piled to the ceiling, Henry Wainer laboriously details what’s inside every box. A chilly visitor begins inching her way toward the door and Wainer, who doesn’t mind the cold, can’t stop talking:

"Japanese eggplant from Florida, baby eggplant from Guatemala, Massachusetts cranberries, squash blossoms picked in southern California, pous pieds from Oregon. Those are sea beans. Jerusalem artichokes from California – see how thin the skin is? Upland cress grown in the greenhouse on cape cod, rosemary flowers from a local farm, all your mushrooms, Dutch tomatoes, and here are the Israelis, baby red beets, gold beets, baby turnips, banana leaves, Scotch bonnets, haricots verts out of Mexico, baby leeks, Maine peppers. That stuff’s getting shipped out.

“Freight costs 70 cents a pound on some items going out to the Caribbean. A 50-pound box costs $35 just on the freight to get it there. Produce might be $20. If it doesn’t get there in good condition, it cost me $55 – plus the cost of produce. You don’t want to know how much I spend in packaging. Everyone knows its gotta be great. There are USDA inspectors in here twice a week checking for quality and standards.”

Only two subjects are a little touchy. One is how Wainer can guarantee air freight delivery out of Boston in light of weather like last winter’s. The other is what growers in places like Central and South America are spraying on their fields.

Expounding on the first, he goes on a bit about American Airlines “owing the Caribbean. Commercial airlines have a list of priorities,” which include mail and medicine, both of which are loaded before food. So to avoid having perishable food sit in an airport warehouse, “we fly with the drug companies. We go around all commercial airlines.” He doesn’t get more specific.

The question about chemicals is answered by pointing out what big companies like Dole and Chiquita are doing in terms of pest management. “Once they put their name on a box,” he says, and the sentence trails off, suggesting that’s a kind of purity guarantee. “I’m not saying that a mongrel farm might not use a chemical,” he allows.

Three years ago, Wainer began traveling to Europe to scout for specialty foods. Because he can spot a craze a mile away, he went to Italy to buy balsamic vinegar, truffles, olive oils, olive pastes, marinated artichokes, roast peppers, and Carpegna prosciutto - “the only one allowed in this country not from Parma.” His French imports include herbes de Provence, olives, vinegars, infused oils and nut oils, a line of jams and a number of mustards.

Wainer says that he writes letters to food producers to ask them for samples. When searching for smoked salmon, for instance “we challenged every producer in Scotland.” He chose a supplier in the northernmost isles who cure salmon in oak and beech smoke, and then named the product Kilchurn Estates. Another producer on this side of the Atlantic smokes farmed salmon marketed as Atlantic Isles. “Zabar’s carves Kilchurn,” says Wainer. “We’re selling some of the best retails in the country.”

Last week, just back from the big food shows in Paris - “It’s about seven times the size of Bayside” - he met an Italian truffle farmer of the sort he’s been in search of for two years. “I wanted to get involved with someone in the market who goes out on a bicycle with his dog. Everyone in the show was showing truffles.” So Wainer met with the Italian man who produces his marinated artichokes and asked, “Who is real?”

And there was a guy, says Wainer, “sitting in the corner. He has a curly mustache and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.” He worked with his father, and he had a dog and a bicycle. “Bingo, we put it together.”

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