The Best Produce is Also the Cheapest

Produce prices at your local Chinatown are likely a fraction of what they cost at other supermarkets, and if you've wondered why, you're not alone. In an investigative report for the Wall Street Journal reporter Anne Kadet admits she always assumed the low prices were a reflection of subpar produce. But a deeper investigation of New York's Chinatown with author Valerie Imbruce led her to the opposite conclusion, and reveals the hidden truths behind the neighborhood's fruit and vegetable supply chain.

I have been able to experience these markets first hand, and it is quite obvious they are not getting second rate produce. I have often wondered how on earth they are pulling this off, they have a bigger selection, at ridiculously lower prices and of higher quality. It really seems like that should be, at best, a pick two scenario; like in fast/good/cheap with meals.

In the Journal she distills to Kadet the real reason Chinatown can keep prices low: “Chinatown’s 80-plus produce markets are cheap because they are connected to a web of small farms and wholesalers that operate independently of the network supplying most mainstream supermarkets.” While most of the rest of New York's markets get their produce from the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, Chinatown sellers work directly with small neighborhood warehouses. Since they're operating in close geographic proximity, they can get fresh produce throughout the day from wholesalers, and therefore don’t need a store with refrigeration or a lot of storage space.

Ok, but where are they finding this stuff?

And then there’s the variety. In Chinatown, Imbruce says, you can find anything from jackfruit to fuzzy squash and baby Shanghai bok choy, in addition to almost 200 other fruits and vegetables. Wholesalers in Chinatown source these interesting items from family farms growing Asian vegetables in Florida or Honduras. Imbruce mentions that she has visited more than 75 of these farms and saw very little exploitation; in fact, they were happy to be working for Chinatown wholesalers “because they could cultivate an array of crops, leading to economic and agronomic stability.”

Fascinating read. The variety and freshness hint at how frequently we overestimate how produce will spoil. Our supermarkets have definitely gone the route of completely prioritizing visual indicators of quality over olfactory ones. It'll be interesting to see how people try to develop franchises following these models.